by Kristine Williams
"So, Jim...how long has it been since you've skied?"
Jim was glancing at the grey sky again, worried about the weather as they drove up the pass. "Three years, give or take." he replied. "Don't worry, it's like falling off a bike, you don't forget."
Blair nodded, "Yeah, lets hope it's like falling off a bike, and not down a mountain."
"Sandburg, would you relax? Maybe I don't get up here as often as you do, but I've been skiing since before you learned to ride a bike."
Blair laughed, looking out the passenger window, and had to bite his lip against a remark he knew wouldn't be appreciated. He was just glad they were getting away for a while. Jim had been tense lately, and he was tired, needed a break. This ski trip was going to be perfect. In the middle of the week the lodge and slopes would be almost deserted. It was mid-season, and a lot of wet snow had fallen in the past two weeks. Their trip to the Monastery a few months back had turned out to be anything but restful, so Jim had suggested the ski trip this time. He had to admit, he hadn't actually been on the slopes himself in a while, but he was looking forward to it.
"Looks like it's going to snow today." Jim kept eyeing the sky as they drove.
"You know, Jim, this could be interesting." Blair replied, "We haven't tested your Sentinel senses in severe weather like this before...the cold, the altitude..."
"No, no way. This time we're on vacation." Jim interrupted his friend. "No testing, no practicing. Just skiing. A vacation, okay?"
Blair laughed, "Okay. Okay." He would have said more but they had just arrived at the lodge. Jim parked the truck and they checked in. A light snow was beginning to fall as they unloaded their gear, taking it upstairs to the large suite they were sharing. Mid week rates were the best, offering the larger rooms at a more affordable price, so they had a large living area, kitchen and two bedrooms on opposite ends.
"Oh man, this is great." Blair was looking out the living room window to the slopes behind the lodge. "Simon doesn't know what he's missing." But I'm still glad he didn't come.
Jim smiled, grabbed his coat and tossed another to Blair. "Well come on Chief, time's a'wasting."
Blair followed eagerly out the door, carrying his skis. Not long after, they were both atop one of the more difficult slopes, preparing to head down. Jim had paused, and was making a big show of putting on goggles.
"Hey Jim, man, if you didn't want to start at the top, you should have said something." Blair chided.
Jim looked at him, grabbed his poles purposefully, and nodded down the hill. "Last one down buys lunch."
"Ha, you're on." Blair barely had time to reply and Jim was off, pushing for speed. He laughed, then followed quickly. Jim's offers to buy were few and far between, he wasn't going to pass up this opportunity.
Blair soon found he had to work to keep the marginal lead he had acquired on his older friend. The snow fall was beginning to thicken, but every chance he had to glance behind him showed Jim right on his heels. He nearly fell twice while looking back and thought better of it. Blair saw the lodge approaching and smiled, then laughed as he heard Jim cursing behind him. He came to a stop and looked back.
"Hey Jim, not bad for someone who hasn't been out in a while." he said as his friend came to a stop next to him, pulling off his goggles.
"I want a rematch, Sandburg."
"Sure, anytime. How about now? Best two out of three?"
Jim looked around, "After lunch maybe. It's snowing pretty hard." He stepped out of his skis, "And I'm hungry."
Blair nodded, grinning, and followed suit. As Jim led the way to the lodge Blair hoped his racing heartbeat wasn't detectable to Sentinel hearing 'on vacation'. That run had been fast, and hard. Blair hadn't skied that high a slope in too long. It was exhilarating, but halfway down he actually thought it would be him taking a fall instead of Jim, and he spent more time praying he wouldn't than thinking about his imminent victory.
They had an enjoyable lunch. The lodge was only half booked, so the dining area was almost deserted. Blair noticed one nice looking woman across the room, but the older gentleman she was sitting with was definitely not her father, so he stopped looking. There were two other men sitting at the table, all listening intently to every word the older man said. Blair almost asked Jim to listen in, but the last time he did that, he hadn't been too happy with the result. But sometimes...
"That guy over there, the skinny one with the glasses, does he look familiar to you?" Jim asked.
Blair had to turn around to see the man Jim had been watching. "No. Should he?"
Jim shook his head. "I'm not sure." he glanced around the room. "I just feel like I should know him. He looks awfully nervous about something."
Blair glanced at Jim, then at the skinny man again. He never thought of Jim as much of a people watcher. He was observant, almost to a fault, due to the job, but a people watcher? "How can you tell?"
"He's sweating. And he keeps looking around."
"Jim, he's sitting beside a fire. And everyone is looking around." Blair nodded across the room. "There's an interesting group over there." he said. "If I was prone to imagining things, I'd say that's a crime boss, two goons and his girl."
"What do you mean if?"
Blair gave his friend a dirty look. "Okay, what's your take on them?"
Jim considered the group for a moment, "Rich old guy, his young lady friend, a couple of yes men."
"My point exactly."
Jim turned back to Blair. "You've been hanging around cops too long. You're going to start seeing everyone with a jaded eye."
Blair laughed, "What about you? The skinny guy with the glasses looks nervous?"
"Come on, lets hit that slope again." Jim stood. "This time it's for dinner."
Oh shit. "Okay. But it's best two out of three."
Jim smiled, "It's best how ever many we can do before dark."
They hit the slopes five more times, each time taking the same run. Jim was first down for two runs, Blair letting him take the lead while he gained more confidence in himself. Then he took over, beating the older man by several minutes on the last three runs. He was exhausted, and shaking a bit when he came to a stop on the last run, looking back to watch Jim come up beside him. He wouldn't have needed Sentinel hearing to tell Jim's heart was racing now, and he was glad he wasn't the only one feeling the exhilaration of strenuous exercise.
"Okay Sandburg, you win." Jim said, breathlessly. "I give up."
Blair smiled, still breathing hard, "If you say so." He was exhausted, but he wasn't about to be the one to quit. And I'm sure he knows it.
"Come on, I need a hot shower and some warm clothes." Jim lead the way back to the lodge.
As they walked up the stairs to their second floor room the skinny man with the glasses passed by. Blair watched him go, noting that Jim was also watching, and had to admit now that the man did look nervous. As he turned to watch, he saw the lady from lunch standing at the bottom of the stairs, seemingly waiting for the man. Her friends were nowhere around. Jim had continued up the stairs and Blair hurried to catch up. Turning back for one more look he saw the skinny man stop, talk quickly with the woman, then hurry into the bar.
"Sandburg, are you coming?"
Blair pulled himself away from the railing and hurried down the hall. "Jim, I think you're right, that guy looks definitely nervous about something."
Jim unlocked the door and tossed the key on the coffee table, pulling off his coat. "I thought you weren't prone to imagining things." he said.
"Jim, you're the one who said he looked nervous." Blair replied, pushing away the coat that Jim had tossed at his head. "He met that girl, from lunch, the one with the older guy. They went into the bar."
"Jim, I'm serious." Blair replied, hanging both coats on pegs by the door. "It's weird, man"
Jim was pulling off his sweater and had to wait until it was over his face before he could answer. "Okay, he's a mob boss, with two goons. She's his squeeze, they're here to meet some accountant or something." he tossed the sweater into his room and proceeded to the bathroom. "I'm on vacation, Sandburg. I don't care who they are or what they're doing."
Blair rolled his eyes and was ready to reply when the shower started. Fine. He gave up and started pulling off his cold, damp clothes. As soon as Jim was out of the shower, Blair went in, letting the hot water revive tired muscles. It had been too long since he'd had a workout like today. He was tired, and he knew he'd be sore tomorrow, but it felt good. Jim hadn't seemed affected at all by several years away from the slopes, but then his friend was in excellent shape, working out every chance he got. Blair preferred the work out a good hike, or ski run gave. He wasn't much for free weights, but he wasn't exactly a lightweight, either.
After the shower, Blair could have crawled into bed and been happy.
"Come on, I'm starving." Jim pushed him toward the door. "Tomorrow, it's your turn."
Blair sighed, "You know Jim, they do have smaller slopes."
Jim reached out and cuffed his friend on the back of the head as he preceded him through the door. "Funny Chief. I saw you sweating on that last run. I figure you're about out of steam, and I've just gotten a good warm up."
Oh great. "Right." Blair knew he was right. His legs and shoulders were beginning to stiffen. By morning he'd most likely lose each run if he stiffened up too much. Of course, Jim was moving a little slower than usual himself. Maybe he'd still have the edge over his friend. It would be nice to be able to find one thing he could beat Jim at physically. Just one.
The dinner group was only slightly larger than lunch. Blair noticed two more couples, one obviously on their honeymoon, the other a bit older and practically ignoring each other as they ate. He did notice Jim watching the skinny one with the glasses, sitting once again beside the large fireplace at the far end of the room. His attention was taken up by the group from lunch. He was beginning to think the older gentleman looked familiar, but he wasn't sure if that was true, or it was because he had been looking at him for so long. One of the 'goons' was missing this time. And twice he had grabbed the lady's wrist, shouting something at her. Blair didn't approve of the man's manners, but the lady didn't protest, just responded to each outburst with a short answer and darting eyes. Blair was becoming quite intrigued when Jim finally spoke up.
"This is bugging me." he said.
"What?" Blair hadn't quite heard.
"That guy. I swear I know him from somewhere." Jim nodded towards the skinny man with the glasses.
Blair glanced over again, watching the man take his glasses off, wipe them clean with a handkerchief and put them back on. "His hands are shaking."
Jim nodded. "I know. He's been doing that every five minutes."
"Jim, I thought you said you were on vacation." Blair raised his eyebrows. "I mean, wasn't it you telling me to stop imagining things?"
Jim gave his friend a look, then glanced over to the older man Blair had been watching. "I'm starting to think maybe there is something going on here."
Blair laughed. "Oh this is great. Why can't you and I spend a week together without something going on? What is it about you? Does trouble follow you everywhere, or do you just make it?"
"Sandburg...first of all, trouble doesn't follow me anywhere. It's you who seems to find it for us." Blair rolled his eyes as Jim continued. "Second of all, no one said there was trouble. I'm just getting a funny feeling."
Blair shook his head, "Well, before my imagination runs away with me, how about a night run?" He was beginning to feel more awake now, after four cups of coffee, and thought a nice slow run down the slopes would loosen up stiff muscles.
"Night run? No way, not me." Jim replied, looking outside at the darkness. There were lights visible on the slopes, but it was too dark to see far from where they sat. "You go ahead, you need the practice."
"Yeah." Blair laughed. "Come on, it'll be good for you."
"No thanks, Sandburg. I'm going to go into that lounge, sit by the fire, and relax."
Blair shook his head, "What you're going to do is sit in there and stare at that guy, making him even more nervous, until you figure out who he is."
It was Jim's turn to roll his eyes as he watched
It didn't take long for Blair to get dressed for the snow again, gather his gear, and head for the lift. Once there, he recognized the man in the chair in front of him as Jim's nervous skinny guy. He laughed, thinking of Jim sitting by the fire with no one to stare at. Then he had to wonder about this guy himself. Blair would never have pegged him for the night skiing type. In fact, he looked completely out of place in the snow altogether. His jacket and ski pants looked brand new, as did his skis. He was still glancing around, as though he expected someone to come up beside him in mid-air on the lift. Blair was intrigued now, watching the man. He followed him off the lift, but had to turn around several times to avoid being seen. This guy is just too nervous. He decided Jim was right, they were on vacation. He was probably scared of the slopes. That was it, he was probably nervous about skiing, had taken all day to talk himself into it, now found it hard to go through with. But if that were true, he shouldn't be starting out on such a steep hill. Blair shook his head, I give up.
The slopes were lit by flares specially placed for night skiing. Blair looked down the hill as far as he could. The air was crisp and still, the fresh snow from that afternoon had laid a soft blanket over everything in sight. In the darkness, the mountainside looked like a picture postcard. Jim doesn't know what he's missing. It was so peaceful, so quiet. He glanced around, wondering where the skinny man had gone, but couldn't find him. For a moment, he thought he should go look. The guy really didn't look like he should be on this high a slope, as nervous as he seemed. But after a few minutes of looking, Blair gave up. He hadn't gone down in front of him, there were just two heading down the slope now, the young honeymooning woman from dinner and the older man who had been practically ignoring his companion. He checked his skis, looked around again at the snow covered trees, and proceeded at a leisurely pace down the mountain.
He was nearly halfway down when he heard it. At first he wasn't sure what the sound was, he had picked up some speed and the wind was rushing past. But he was sure it had been something. Blair stopped, taking off his goggles and looked back. He had expected to see another skier, someone who had fallen, or shouted or something. What he didn't expect was the wall of pure white death crashing down the mountain towards him.
Blair turned immediately and pushed off. He knew outrunning an avalanche was nearly impossible, but he had no other option. The trees to either side would provide no protection, and would become dangerous as the snow snapped them and sent them down the mountain. He tried to gain speed, but the new soft snow that covered the compact base was slowing him down. His mind raced through safety drills he had learned, listened to, but never had to practice. He could hear the wall of snow and ice closing in and began to feel the ground shake beneath his skis. There was no more time. He fell, rolling and kicking his skis off just as the leading edge of snow hit. As the snow began to press over him, forcing him down deeper, Blair's arms came up to cover his face. Both ski poles snapped off and were lost in the blanket he was desperately pushing away from his face. The thundering grew dimmer, and his forced rolling slowed. He continued pushing snow away from his face, desperately trying to make a cave he could breathe in until the mountain rescue could come. Until Jim could come.
Suddenly he stopped moving, rolling to a stop on his back, still pushing snow away. It was wet and hard and seemed to form easily. That was good, wasn't it? He heard a few large chunks land in front of him and they helped to make a larger cave to breathe in. He closed his eyes, stunned to still be alive. Then realizing his situation had not been improved by much, he opened them. At least he thought he did. It was so dark, he couldn't even see his hand right in front of his face. Don't panic, stay calm. Both legs were pinned under the hard snow, but from the waist up he had a large area of freedom. He felt around, trying to gauge the amount of air his cave would afford. Ski drills came back in his mind, always the ones that can't help, he thought. He remembered the odds of surviving an avalanche were 2 out of 100. And that most died of suffocation, not frostbite. He felt around his cave again, desperately trying to feel the top and sides. There was a lot of room behind his head. Surely there was plenty of air. And if he could find one of his poles, maybe he could poke a hole through, enough for air? I don't want to die under three inches of snow. Blair felt around, but with thickly gloved and freezing cold hands he couldn't find anything. How long could he last? Come on Jim, time for that rescue stuff you're so good at.
"Jim!...Someone!...Anyone!...Help!!" he shouted. Was the snow too thick? Could anyone hear him? Was anyone out there? Did they see where he was when the snow hit? Had anyone seen? How much air was there? His hands and arms were numb now, and he could feel the cold seeping up his legs and over his chest. It was getting harder to breathe. Was he running out of air? Or was it the cold, freezing his lungs?
"Jim!" Oh man, shut up stupid, you're wasting air. But if he didn't shout, how would Jim find him? I've got to get out of here. He tried to move his left leg, to free it from the snow, but it was too tightly wedged, and beginning to go numb with cold. He tried his right leg, and a stabbing pain from his knee nearly caused him to pass out.
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