by Kristine Williams
Jim made another sweep of the room, opening the drawers on the writing desk. There was a pad inside, and he felt around for any indentations. There were none. It was a brand new pad and hadn't been used. He checked under the couch, under each cushion, around the room again staring at the carpet. Nothing. There wasn't a single sign of anyone having been checked in to that room, other than a brand new, empty suitcase under the bed, and a toothbrush and hair brush in the bathroom. And for all he knew, those were brand new as well.
Frustrated, Jim gave up. He pocketed the receipt and left, locking the door behind him. He was going to take the key back to the front desk, but his own room beckoned from across the hall and he could no longer ignore the tired muscles and a headache from being up so long.
After a hot shower and change of clothes, he realized it was past twelve. He was torn between the desire to check up on Blair, and the heaviness of his eyelids. Eventually his tired eyes won and he lay down on the couch, intending a quick nap, but was soon fast asleep. By the time the knocking woke him, the sky was just beginning to darken.
"Who is it?" Jim called, rolling off the couch. His neck had a kink from sleeping in one position for so long.
"It's Tom Hanks, Detective. We've finished sweeping the area, I thought you'd like to know."
Jim had opened the door then,
"We found something. A rifle, but no body." Tom said.
Jim forced his eyes open wide for a moment, pushing out the last of the sleep he hadn't had enough of yet. "Rifle? Where?"
"Well, we've got it locked up in the storage shed, with Mr. Benchly's body."
"Where did you find it?"
"Oh, ah...on top of the ridge, just inside the tree line. It was poking out through the snow, otherwise we never would have spotted it in that mess of logs and branches."
Jim nodded, "Better let me take a look." He followed Tom out of the doorway, locking the room behind him. "How many people have a key to this storage shed of yours?"
"Just me, and a couple other ski patrolmen. And there's a master key at the Ranger's station down the mountain. They have keys to all the rooms and buildings."
Jim forgot to grab his coat and now held his arms around his chest against the cold of the wind and snow that was still coming down. The walk to the shed was short, but when they arrived, his hands were freezing. That made him think of Blair.
"You said this rifle was buried?"
"Yes, mostly." After some fumbling the padlock finally opened and they both went inside. "In the tree line the avalanche slows down, but does more damage with the trees coming down. The snow isn't as thick, so we usually recover any bodies that may have been buried there."
Jim picked up the rifle that was lying on top of Benchly's body bag.
"A lot of people head for the trees when they see a slide coming down, thinking they'll be safer. They usually get crushed by falling trees and branches before ever being buried."
Jim was listening as he examined the weapon. "So, in your opinion, if a man was hiding in the trees when the avalanche started, he'd most likely be killed?"
Tom shrugged, "I would expect so. Of course, there's always a chance. Your friend survived."
Jim looked up, "Yes, but he was in the open, on the slope."
"Sure, and he was buried pretty deep and ran out of air...but he's alive." Tom walked around the table holding Mr. Benchly. "You're thinking the shooter is dead?"
"I'm thinking we have an unsolved murder." Jim hefted the rifle, "I'm going to need a secure place for this, and a list of each guest registered at the lodge since yesterday morning."
Tom thought for a moment, "Well, there's a storage closet in the basement of the lodge itself, I think only the front desk has the key. And the list I can get, no problem."
Jim nodded, "That should be fine."
"Are you saying, we have a murderer up here with us? I mean, if he didn't die in the slide? Are we in danger?"
Jim raised his eyebrows, "I would say so, yes."
"So, what do we do? Do we warn everyone? Question everyone? What?"
"First of all, 'We' don't do anything. Just get me a secure place for this evidence, and that list. And don't mention this to anyone right now. Whoever is involved, I don't want to tip him--or her--off. And we don't want to start a panic, either."
Tom nodded, absorbing the information. "Okay, whatever you say."
"Can you take me to the storage room now?" Jim was waiting for him to grasp the situation and deal with it. He seemed a little shocked, but then who wouldn't be? Murder wasn't part of a mountain rescuer's job. Avalanches killed, they didn't murder.
"Oh, right. Sure, this way." Tom led the way back through the snow to the rear of the lodge. They entered through the service door and down a short hallway. "Here you go. It's not locked right now, but the front desk has a padlock we can use. I'll just go get that."
Jim watched Tom leave, then entered the room, pulling the chain for the light. It was a small room, filled mostly with cleaning supplies. He found a counter with some spare room and set the rifle down there, giving it as close an exam as he could in the dim light. There was nothing telling on the rifle that he could see. The serial number had been filed completely down, he expected that. Even with his Sentinel sight he couldn't make out more than three numbers. And without access to the Department database, it would do him no good, anyway. Fingerprints were also next to worthless, until they could get back to the lab. Tom returned then, handing Jim a large padlock and two keys.
"They said these are the only two keys. Should I keep one, just in case?"
"No, that's fine. Thank you." Jim took both keys, exited the room and locked the door, checking its security. "I'm going to go check in on my friend. Just let me know if you find anything else out of the ordinary. And tomorrow, I'd like to see the area where this was found."
"Oh, sure. Okay."
Jim followed the hall to the stairs, up one flight, back into the main lobby of the lodge. Glancing around, he noticed the same crowd of visitors, still complaining and worrying about the road closures that were making a longer stay out of a simple ski trip. He hurried upstairs for his jacket. It was snowing heavily now, but the wind had died down. As he crossed the road to the aid station, he glanced back up the slope, barely visible in the downpour of large, white flakes. He couldn't discount the possibility of the shooter surviving the slide. But so far, the only person he could swear wasn't in the lodge at the time, and was still unaccounted for, was one of the older man's yes men. Maybe Blair's imagination wasn't running wild, after all.
Once inside the aid station he shrugged off the snow that was piled on his shoulders and head.
"Ah, Mr. Ellison. I see it's snowing again?" Dr Stuart was just coming out of Blair's room when he came into the lobby.
"Again? I wasn't aware that it had stopped."
She smiled, wrapping the stethoscope around her neck and letting her hands hang from it. "It did for about thirty minutes, I think. It must be really coming down now, you're covered."
Jim shrugged out of his jacket and let the rest of the snow fall off in the doorway, trying to keep it off the carpet. "How's he doing?"
"He's doing well. I've just changed the bandaging on his leg, it's looking as well as can be expected. No sign of lung congestion as of yet, but I still want to keep a close eye on him. Other than that, his temperature is up to normal, no signs of permanent damage from the frostbite."
"That's good news, thanks doc." Jim hung his coat on a peg in the waiting area and walked over to the door, knocking quietly as he opened it. Blair was propped up, blankets wrapped thickly around him. Jim recognized the look of someone heavily medicated as Blair turned to him.
"Hey, Chief. How you feeling? You can't still be cold...?" Jim walked over to the chair that was still next to the bed where he had spent the past night and placed a hand on his friend's forehead.
"It's more psychological now, I think." Blair answered, shivering only slightly. "Not like before."
Jim looked into his eyes for a moment, trying to judge Blair's health for himself. Satisfied with what he saw, he sat down. "How's the leg?"
Blair laughed a little, "It hurts." he said. "But only when I move."
"Then don't move, Chief."
"Simple as that, huh?"
"Simple as that." Jim replied.
Blair shifted a little in bed, "You saved my life, again. They told me about how I wasn't breathing when you found me and all."
"You gave me quite a scare."
"I know, and I'm sorry." he said, looking down for a moment. "They also said you stayed here all night?"
Jim nodded. "You don't remember, do you?"
"Not really." Blair admitted. "Just images...like a nightmare. I remember you, and..." he looked away for a moment, then back to Jim. "I keep seeing Lash when I close my eyes, like he was here."
"You did mention him when you were delirious." Jim said quietly, noting the slight reflection of fear in his friend's eyes. "That's normal, to flash on something like that after another trauma. Don't worry about it. He's dead, Blair. And you aren't."
Blair sighed deeply, tugging at the blankets. "You got there just in time, too. I just wanted to say thanks." He looked back up at Jim, "For that, and for staying here with me."
Jim smiled. There was a lot he could say, and would have liked to say, but he knew Blair embarrassed easily. He was looking like someone's little lost puppy again, lying there with the blankets pulled up to this neck. "You're welcome." He'd been through enough lately. "I'm your Blessed Protector, remember?"
Blair nodded, accepting that. "At least it was just an avalanche, and not some murdering psycho or something."
Jim rolled his eyes and sat back, leaning into the chair. "Well, not exactly."
"What do you mean?"
"Our skinny nervous guy, from the lodge. Turns out his name was Richard Benchly. He's dead."
"Not from the avalanche. He was shot."
Jim nodded, rubbing tired eyes for a moment. "We've got a murder on our hands, Chief. High-powered rifle, shot through the head. We think that's what triggered the avalanche."
"Tom Hanks, one of the ski patrol. He found the body, and the rifle just a few hours ago." Jim smiled inside at the slight note of jealousy he heard in Blair's voice. "He also helped me dig you out."
"So...what do we do? They said the roads were blocked and the phone lines are down. We're stuck up here with a murderer?"
"Not exactly. I'm having a hard time imagining someone pulling the trigger, and getting away from that slide. You were halfway down already when it hit and look what happened. The killer couldn't have shot Benchly up on top of the slope, then beat you and the slide down. And if he was in the woods, where the rifle was found, he should be dead but there's no body. He couldn't have known the shot would bring down half the mountainside. And if he had, why didn't he just fire from a better distance, and let the snow kill him." he paused, shaking his head. "Unless he wasn't the only target. You haven't made anyone mad at you lately, have you?" he teased.
"Just Simon." Blair replied.
Jim laughed. "Well, if you had been the only other person on the slopes, then maybe Simon would be a suspect. But Mr. Kelly died up there too. And Mrs. Evans could have died."
Blair raised his eyebrows, questioning the names.
"They were in front of you, heading down the slope. Mrs. Evans is the young lady from the dining room, looked like she was on her honeymoon?" Blair nodded. "And Mr. Kelly was the older guy, with his wife. They were the two not speaking to each other." Blair nodded again, remembering.
"What about the mobster, with the girlfriend and those two goons?"
Jim smiled at Blair's description, then shook his head. "Well, all are accounted for, except one. They were at the window, looking up the mountain with binoculars, and a night vision scope, just before it happened."
"What? Night vision? Why?"
"Good question, Chief." Jim replied. "He's my number one suspect right now, but I haven't had a chance to question anyone." Just then he yawned mightily, stretching his arms. "I fell asleep after going over Benchly's room."
"Did you find anything?"
"No, as a matter of fact. Absolutely nothing. Like he hadn't even been in there." He pulled out the slip of paper from the closet floor and examined it again. "Just a suitcase under the bed, with absolutely nothing inside. A bathroom with no signs of anyone having been in there, other than a brand new toothbrush, and the hotel toothpaste."
"Just the way you like it." Blair interjected.
"Funny, Chief." Jim replied. "And this."
"A receipt, for the ski gear he was wearing. He just bought it the day he went up."
"I knew he didn't look like he belonged on the slopes." At that it was Blair's turn to yawn. "What now?"
"Well, right now, I'm going to get some real sleep. I can't think anymore." He stood and stretched. "There's no way out of this pass, so whoever is behind all of this is not going anywhere, at least before morning." He bent backwards, listening to tired joints pop. "Get some sleep. I'll bring you up to date after I check things out tomorrow."
He paused at the door, looking back.
"Be careful, okay?"
He smiled, "I will Chief. Get some sleep."
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