by Kristine Williams
Blair was so hot! He had fallen asleep in the sun, and couldn't seem to wake himself. He needed to roll over, to get up and get into the shade, but he couldn't move. He was so tired, he couldn't even open his eyes. How long had he been there? Why didn't someone help him up and into the shade? Couldn't they see he was burning up? He had been dreaming, about being in the snow somewhere. Cold, cool snow covering him like a blanket, cooling him off, instead of baking him like this heat! If only he could wake himself, get up and move into the shade. He willed his head to move, trying to get enough energy to roll over and get up.
Someone was there...Jim? He could help, get me into the shade. Surely he sees I'm burning up here.
Suddenly a hand was on his forehead, but the hand wasn't cool, it was hot. And then, like a flash of lightning, Blair wasn't hot any more. He was freezing! His entire body spasmed, shivering violently against the cold that ran so deep. Desperately he tried to go back to what he now understood had been a dream, but no matter how hard he tried, the warmth wouldn't return. Only the hand on his forehead was warm, but it wasn't his hand. He opened his eyes just as another spasm hit.
"Hang on Blair."
Jim. It was Jim's hand, holding his head during the spasms. He tried to speak, but his jaw was clenched tightly against the cold, and the pain he was beginning to feel in feet and hands. He waited until another spasm passed,
"Jim, I'm so cold." He could hear his teeth chatter as he spoke. "God, it's so cold." Another spasm hit and he would have cried out against the pain in his fingers and toes if his jaw wasn't clenched so tightly.
"I know, Blair, I know."
How could he know, he was standing there sweating! "Please...Jim...." He willed his friend to make the cold go away. Make the pain go away. The pain that was slowly creeping up his legs and down his arms. But it didn't go away. He closed his eyes tightly against another spasm, and faintly heard a second voice. Someone else was in the room, but he couldn't open his eyes. The blood rushing through his ears was so loud, he couldn't hear what was being said. Another pair of hands was on him now, feeling his forehead...his face.
Lash! It was Lash, come to finish the job. Blair jerked his head away, trying to move, trying to get away. Jim wasn't there, how could he be? They didn't know where Lash took his victims. He had just been with Jim hours ago and they had no clue as to the location he was now in. He was alone. He couldn't move. And Lash was holding him down, getting ready to kill him and he was helpless to stop it. He was going to die! The hands were still there and he pulled away, shouting.
"Jim...?" He heard a voice somewhere, calling him, but he still couldn't open his eyes. Then a lighter voice, one he didn't recognize. Another spasm shook him and he opened his eyes then, seeing Jim still standing over him. Lash was gone. Where was he? Someone moved behind his friend, and Blair could see it was a woman, not Lash?
"Blair, it's Jim. Come on, stay with me here Chief."
He swallowed hard, waiting for another spasm to hit, knowing it would. The burning pain had reached his knees now, and the right one was hurting far more than it should. "Jim, it hurts." He could hear how weak his own voice was, but surely Jim could hear him? "Please..."
"Doc, come on, you've got to be able to do something." he heard Jim say. Yes, do something, please.
He cried out with the next spasm as the now unbearable pain in his right leg grew worse with the involuntary muscle clenching. He could feel himself falling, rolling over and over in the darkness. Something was covering him, making it hard to breathe, hard to move. It was heavy, and it pushed him down farther, forcing him deeper into the darkness. He couldn't breathe now, couldn't move. He was covered by something heavy and dark and it was pressing the life out of him. Pressing the air out of him. He tried to call out, to call for Jim, but the weight on top of him was too thick, too heavy. He couldn't get any air! Desperately he pushed at the blanket of darkness covering his face and chest, trying to push it away so he could breathe. But hands were holding him down.
"He's gone to the other extreme now, this is good."
Blair heard voices from far off. Good? How could this be good? He couldn't breathe, he couldn't move. It was so dark and he was alone, how could this be good?! There was a hand again, stroking his forehead, pushing his hair back. His mind flashed on so many things all at once. Lash. The warehouse. There were candles everywhere. The back of an ambulance. His mother chiding him for falling out of Mrs. Danbush's tree. He broke his arm doing that. But he was okay. Just a broken arm. He was okay. The hand stroking his forehead began to mesmerize him, slowly draining the tension from his mind and body. Tired muscles began to relax.
okay Blair, it's okay." The vaguely familiar voice was the last thing Blair
remembered as he finally drifted off to sleep.
"I think he's waking up."
Blair heard a voice far away. He stirred, trying to resist waking up. He was so tired! And cold, but not like before. The spasms had subsided into shivering that came and went with some regularity. He heard another voice, a softer one, but couldn't hear the words. He swallowed, turning his head in an effort to go back to sleep. His entire body was sore, and his legs and arms felt like lead weights. Someone was touching his chest and he felt tape being pulled away. Sleepily, Blair took inventory. The mild burning in fingers and toes told him he was still whole, even though he wasn't sure why that mattered. His right leg felt thick, and he couldn't move it. A hand touched his arm and he slowly, reluctantly, opened his eyes.
"Hey Chief, welcome back."
Jim was there, but they weren't home, in the loft. Where were they?
"Mr Sandburg, how do you feel?"
He turned his head, trying to focus on the female voice from the other side of the bed. He realized then he was in what looked like a hospital room, the woman wearing a white lab coat had just removed a stethoscope from his chest, and was pulling the blanket back up. He swallowed, trying to moisten a dry throat.
"Blair, this is Dr Stuart. You're at the aid station, at the lodge. Are you with me?"
Blair nodded, remembering now. He looked back to Jim, "You look awful."
Jim smiled, glancing at the Dr, then back to Blair. "Don't worry about me, I'm tough. How about you? How do you feel?"
Blair closed his eyes for a moment while he shivered. "I'm cold." Hadn't he said that before?
"Believe it or not, Mr. Sandburg, your core temperature is back to normal." Dr Stuart replied. "But you're not going to feel warm again for some time I'm afraid." She hung the EKG leads that Blair had felt her removing from his chest over the machine beside the bed. "You had frostbite pretty bad, but you have all your fingers and toes. Are they still burning?"
Blair nodded, closing his eyes again. He was so tired.
"That will take a while to stop, but there was no permanent damage to the tissues. And your right leg, there's a deep puncture wound from a ski pole, just above the knee." Blair had forced his eyes open again, trying to listen. He remembered looking for his poles in the snow. "It's pretty nasty, and it's going to keep you on crutches for a while, but I think it should heal all right now." she had turned now to Jim and Blair closed his eyes again. "He'll need to stay here for a while, I want to monitor his lungs. If pneumonia develops we'll have to catch it right away."
Blair wanted to go home, he wanted to get warm. But mostly, he just wanted to sleep again. Then he remembered. "Jim, the others?"
"The two in front of you? They were found last night, it's okay." Jim replied.
No, that wasn't it. "No, the other one, the skinny...guy." He was slipping and he knew it, Jim was getting farther away as sleep overtook him. "He was...above me." Was that out loud?
Dr Stuart turned to Jim, "He's going to sleep quite a bit now. He's exhausted. You should sleep too, last night wasn't easy for you."
No, Jim not yet...the
skinny guy, he's up there.
Jim pulled on the sweater he had draped over the chair, "I'm going up there first, see if they've found anyone else."
"Mr. Ellison, you've been up all night. You need some sleep."
"I will, don't worry Doc." he was looking back at his friend, now asleep. "Just take care of him, okay? I'll be back later."
He didn't wait for an answer, the room was hot and he had been sweating most of the night, trying to help Blair through the pain and cold. Now with the sweater back on it was unbearable. Once outside he looked up the slope, towards the top of what had been the ski run. The chair lift was partially destroyed, poles broken and swaying in the mild wind that was blowing down on him. The snow and ice that crashed down the mountain last night left a swath of destruction behind. He could follow the path as it moved down the slope, past the lodge, and over the road. It was snowing again, lightly, but the sky was a solid mass of grey with no breaks in sight. At the top of the run, where the lift would have dropped off it's passengers, he could make out four figures in red parkas, moving in a pattern. He hurried into the lodge for his coat, noticing on his way up the stairs several people from last night having breakfast, arguing loudly about the road closure that was going to keep them there longer than they had planned. On his way back down, he saw a middle-aged woman sitting beside the fire, staring into the flames that were reflecting off the moisture on her cheeks. Mrs. Kelly, wife of last night's victim?
He paused, watching her. She was alone. He should say something. He wasn't sure what, but he had been there. He knew if he had stayed with the first two victims, helped dig them out, Mr Kelly would still be dead. They said he was crushed, died immediately. Then Blair would be dead too. But he should still say something. He was just walking towards her when he heard his name called.
Jim turned, scanning the room for the person calling him. His eyes met those of the older man from last night, the one Blair had been so intrigued with. He was staring at him, with an odd look in his eyes, but it hadn't been him who called out.
"Detective?" Tom Hanks, the ski patrolman from last night was approaching from the side door.
Jim turned to face him, eyebrows raised questioningly.
"We found someone, on the top of the ridge." He had leaned in to speak quietly to Jim "I think you should see this."
Before Jim could question him he turned, leading the way out the side door. Jim followed him across the street, to a small building next to the aid station. Inside there was a table, with a body on top, covered in plastic.
"Another victim?" Jim asked, walking towards the body. Tom nodded,
"Not from the avalanche, though." He pulled the plastic away from the body's face and Jim immediately recognized the skinny nervous man from the lodge, and the small hole in his forehead as a bullet hole, from a high-powered rifle.
He pulled the rest of the plastic body bag away, looking for more wounds, although he knew the bullet in the man's brain had done the job. "Any ID on him? Anybody know who he was?"
"Not yet, no wallet was found. We'll have to check with the front desk, find out who he was, if he was here with anyone. I thought I should leave that with you. I mean, this is a murder, isn't it? That is a bullet hole?"
Jim nodded, zipping the bag back up. "This is definitely a murder." he paused, looking back towards the mountain he couldn't see from inside the small garage. "Two murders, and two attempted murders."
At first, Tom didn't seem to understand. Then Jim saw him grasp what was being said. "My God, of course. That snow was ready to come down. We were going to set charges today, to make a controlled fall. A rifle shot, in the clear air up there, would be just the thing to set off that snow pile. The wet base, with the soft fresh fall was begging to come down."
"There's just one problem, though." Jim said, fingering the plastic. "Anyone up there would have been buried by the snow as well. He must not have realized he would cause an avalanche. Have there been any more bodies recovered?"
Tom shook his head, "No, not yet. No one else was reported missing. We were just making a routine sweep when we found this one." They were walking out of the small garage now, moving back towards the lodge. "By the way, how's your friend?"
"He's out of the woods now, should be okay." Jim replied. "Thanks for asking."
"He was lucky. So was Mrs Evans, the woman we pulled out with Mr. Kelly."
Jim nodded, "Any word on how long we'll be here? The phones?"
They were at the lodge now, "No, I'm sure it will be at least three, maybe four days. This happens up here, maybe every other year or so. We get used to it, the roads being out, that is." He nodded towards Mrs Kelly who they could now see, still sitting by the fire. "That, is something I could never get used to."
Jim watched as Dr. Stuart approached the grieving woman. She stood for a moment beside her, with a hand on her shoulder. Mrs. Kelly was speaking, then the doctor sat, placing a comforting arm around the new widow's shoulders.
"So, you're saying everyone here is accounted for? What about skiers just here for the day, not checked in with the lodge?"
"No, no one's reported anyone missing. We set up a station outside, behind the lodge, but that fall was after normal hours. Only night skiing is allowed after dark, and we don't have much of that during the week."
Jim was going to ask why night skiing had been allowed on a slope slated for a controlled avalanche, but something caught his eye across the room. "Can you get me a key to our gunshot victim's room? I'll need to go through it." Tom just nodded and walked over to the front desk. Jim moved farther into the lounge, glancing around the room, trying to account for every face he and Blair had seen that night.
Mrs. Kelly, and the late Mr. Kelly, had been in the dining room last night. He hadn't paid much attention to them at the time, but did remember Blair saying something about how they weren't speaking to each other. He looked over by the bar. The older man, the girlfriend half his age, and one of the suits with them were sitting near the bar. Jim remembered then he had been at the window just before the avalanche, looking up the slope with a night vision attachment on his binoculars. Suspect number one. He looked around, finally finding Mr Evans sitting with his wife. She was wrapped in several blankets, still shivering as Blair had been this morning. But she was otherwise unhurt, hugging a large cup with steam pouring from it. It couldn't be anyone still alive, there's no way the shooter could have escaped that snow. Jim figured a high-powered rifle, even at twenty yards...that would put the suspect near the trees. And those trees had all been snapped off by the chunks of ice that crashed through them. Blair, and Mrs. Evans, were alive by sheer luck, and they had been racing ahead of the snow.
"Here you go." Jim hadn't noticed Tom standing beside him. "His name was Richard Benchly."
Jim turned, "Anyone here with him?" he asked, taking the key.
"No, he was alone. Came up yesterday morning."
"Okay, I'm going to need to go through his room. Let me know if you find anyone else up there, right away. Okay?"
Tom nodded, "Sure thing. So, you're sure there's one more up there? The shooter?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
Jim waited until the patrolman left, then he glanced around the room one more time. Blair's mobster was watching him, as was his male companion. The young lady was busy with her nails. He smiled congenially and turned, walking up the stairs to the rooms. He checked the key for the number, then found the room at the far end of the hall, opposite his and Blair's. The key went in easily and he looked down the hall once before going in. No one had followed.
Once inside, Jim locked the door, putting the chain on, and let his eyes scan the room from the door. Richard Benchly's room was smaller than the suite Jim was in. There was a living room with small fireplace. No kitchen unit, and the bed was off to the left of the room, separated from the main area by a simple screen. He started with sight, scanning the carpeting, walls and furniture for anything he wouldn't want to ruin by walking on or bumping into accidentally. Other than a layer of dust, he found nothing. He moved farther into the room then, inhaling slowly, trying to identify the multitude of odors filtering in. Nothing strange there. No sign of gun powder or anything else unusual.
"I guess I'll have to do this the old fashioned way." Jim muttered. He walked into the sleeping area, pulled a suitcase from under the bed and opened it up. Empty? It looked brand new, and not a stitch of clothing inside. He checked the bathroom. There was a toothbrush, and a hairbrush. Nothing more. He moved over to the one closet in the room, opened the door and pulled the chain for the light. Empty. As he was pushing the door closed, he spotted a piece of paper on the floor in the far corner. He bent over and picked it up, checking for anything else before he stood and examined it. It was a receipt, from the store a block down the street, for ski pants, parka, and a pair of skis and poles.
"Just who were you, Richard Benchly?"
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