"It's starting to come down."
Peter D'Angelo and Alison Bloom were standing on the front porch of the Lambert Ski Lodge.
Located about fifteen miles north-east of Troy, Montana, at the base of the nine thousand, three hundred, twelve foot Lambert peak, in the Purcell Mountains range, just spitting distance from the Yaak River, very close to the Idaho border, just as close to Canada, the lodge was worlds away from the lives they had known, had grown accustomed to, had grown to resent. Farther than the two thousand plus miles they had traveled.
And yet it was their's.
Peter and his life-partner Alison had, only months ago, and on a whim, entered a contest where the grand and only prize was a ski lodge, the Lambert Ski Lodge -- their entry was dated September 4th, to coincide with Peter's first real day of work.
After sending in their less-than two hundred word essay on why they would want to leave sunny Florida to own and operate a ski lodge, along with the completed entry form, the entry fee of one hundred dollars, a color snapshot of the hopeful applicants, and a SASE so that they'd receive a copy of the winning entry, the couple continued on as usual, living their arguably dreary lives.
Peter was a Pensacola, Florida high school English teacher who dreamed of writing the great American novel, or at least of tenure at some prestigious, preferably northwestern, university.
Alison was a manager for the largest dry cleaning establishment in the Florida panhandle, who dreamed of a life without steam.
They had shared an apartment in Avalon Beach, Florida, for going on four years, they had shared each other for quite a bit longer than that.
Then one afternoon -- the last Friday of October -- it all changed. Peter brought in the mail: their self-addressed-stamped-envelope. He opened it, wondering what lucky stiff had bought themselves a dream for a hundred bucks . . .
And they were waiting now. These two lucky stiffs, keeping one eye toward the western horizon, another toward the road. One of their guests of honor had already arrived.
Mark Grimaldi, who along with Steve McRae, had been their closest friends for going on two decades. College buddies, one and all, they shared everything, pain, love, fortune and misfortune. Pizza and drums of beer.
And now, the four of them would share a week of solitude, good food, fine wine, college football, warm memories, and sure, wonderful fortune and some beer. Celebrating, before the ski season, before Peter and Alison's new careers began.
As long as Steve arrived before the storm.
The daily Missoulian had been pretty succinct and to the point. It's morning headline had read: "BLIZZARD ON THE WAY!"
And according to the latest reports -- God bless the Weather Channel -- the snow was already falling hard in Idaho, at a rate of an inch an hour.
And that was only the beginning.
The first flakes were just coming down now. They were fluffy and innocent. Just the way the weather people had predicted. Intermittent flurries for the first few hours, and then the snow would get heavier, the wind stronger, increasing incrementally over the next forty-eight hours, the temperature decreasing, down to the minus twenties.
And when it was all over early Monday morning, Peter and Alison realized that a blanket of snow, five to six feet thick, possibly seven, could be covering the grounds of their lodge.
Their muscles ached in anticipation of shovelling themselves out.
"I see something," Peter said, his voice heavy with emotion. It had been over a year since the four of them had been together.
Alison looked out toward the road.
A white Chevy Blazer was approaching, moving with determination toward the lodge, turning into the drive, and pulling into one of the many visitor parking spaces.
"What do you think Paige is like?" Peter asked.
"Special," Alison said. "If he's in love with her."
"You got that impression too?"
"It's the way he says her name."
But when the Blazer's doors opened, and the driver and passenger exited, Alison and Peter could only groan their disappointment, then hide it quickly. They were innkeepers now, and paying guests would keep wood in the fireplace, would keep them from high school students and dry cleaning machines.
The two men pulled their bags from the rear of the four-by-four. They then pulled out skis and poles, balancing the gear in their arms as if they'd done it a thousand times before, walking toward the porch.
They had been expected. Reservations, two single rooms. Paid in advance.
"Welcome to the Lambert Ski Lodge," Alison said, greeting them on the porch.
"Thank you," the taller of the two men said, flashing her a radiant smile. He was quite lean, and striking. With deep blue eyes and a goatee, his head completely bald. He wore a long black overcoat, and expensive leather gloves.
"I'm Mr. Hitchcock," he said, his voice elegant and educated, as he touched a gloved hand to his breast, "and this," he continued, sweeping that hand toward his short, muscular companion, "is Mr. Goopowski."
The shorter man smiled, and tipped his hat.
"I believe you have rooms waiting for us," Hitchcock said.
"Do we have football this weekend, or do we have football?"
Paige watched Steve with more than a little apprehension, and a bit of embarrassment. They were in the parking lot, pulling their bags from the rented Jeep Wrangler, when suddenly Steve was bear-hugging Peter D'Angelo, who was bear-hugging right back, yelling like college frat boys. All of it about football, and in a language all their own.
And they looked like college boys. Still. Peter was lean, rather tall -- Paige figured six-two -- with piercing black eyes and dark brown hair, a little on the longish side. There was something about him that screamed bohemian.
"Florida is getting even," Steve said, devoted to the end. "The National Championship is ours this year. Ours for the taking."
"Sorry, chum," Peter replied. "Sixty-two to twenty-four. The Cornhuskers are my team now."
"They're from Nebraska," Steve replied.
Alison Bloom turned away from the boys and greeted Paige with a warm smile. "I hid the remote control," she said, in a mischievous whisper.
Paige smiled. She liked the woman immediately, a partner against the wretched pigskin. At least she wouldn't get stuck in front of a television set watching football this weekend.
Alison was of medium height, and just a little on the heavy side, voluptuous it might be argued. She had long "dirty blonde" hair, and wore no makeup on her rather Ivory girlish complexion.
"We were worried you wouldn't make it," Peter said.
"Peter was worried," Alison said. "I knew you'd make it."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Steve said. "And the thought of seeing you shovel snow." He had to laugh.
Paige took a deep breath. The cold air, clean, pollution-free air dashed into her lungs. It felt refreshing, almost. Maybe a week in Montana wouldn't be so bad, she thought. Maybe it was the place to rest and recharge.
She looked at the Lambert Ski Lodge. Not bad for a hundred bucks. It resembled the mansions on Miami's gold coast. One of those twenty-roomers overlooking the ocean on a one-acre parcel of land, asking price: a cool five million.
The lodge was painted dark brown on the outside, with white trim everywhere, as were the variety of out-buildings. A deep wrap-around porch encircled the two story building. Its floor planks also painted brown, its railing white. The roof was pitched at steep angles, Paige imagined to keep it from buckling and collapsing under the weight of the oppressive Montana snows.
But, if the lodge itself was unspectacular and unassuming, the views around it were anything but. Even to Paige, who walked in awe, her eyes drawn to the cables of the ski lift, drawn up, towards the top of Lambert Peak, off in the distance, majestic, a rising spiral of rock and cornice, stretching toward the heavens, showing the way.
The mountain was covered in a blanket of snow, though light, it seemed fluffy, a line-dried sheet, that reminded Paige of those popular ah-ah-ah-ah cotton commercials she had seen as a teen.
The lift itself was not the chair type, but an old-fashioned tram that had to hold eight to ten people easy, like the one to Roosevelt Island, but at half the size. Possibly smaller. A skyway, where one could fly above the skiers, and reach out and touch clouds.
It was docked at the Lambert Pro Shop, one of the brown out-buildings. That was where skiers could purchase lift tickets, gear, hot chocolate, or the latest issue of Powder magazine. It was where one could register for lessons from the lodge's ski pro. But he wouldn't be available until the beginning of high season. Thanksgiving week.
The tram would take skiers up the mountain side, heading toward the top of Lambert peak. From there they could choose any number of trails, beginner to reckless, or a cross country trail that would take one to the Canadian border, a little over twenty miles to the north.
"We'll give you the nickel tour," Peter said, as they stepped onto the porch, through the entrance way, and into the foyer.
Inside, everything was wood, the walls, the floor, the ceilings. A lot of wainscoting. Paige's immediate impression was of being trapped in an oversized cedar closet, or possibly in her footlocker -- no moths in this joint. There seemed to be fireplaces in every room, all of them burning, not roaring really, but close enough.
Through the large foyer, they came face-to-face with the one spectacular room, the great room -- a living room/meeting room, -- which ate up the most of the right half of the first floor. An over-sized sofa and an eclectic assortment of chairs -- Stickley-style, rockers, and wing backs -- were scattered about the room, most facing the floor-to-ceiling fieldstone fireplace that took up one entire wall.
Alison and Peter pointed out the finer points of the first floor: the dining room complete with a rectangular oak table that could sit sixteen, a small library, and a study which had been turned into an entertainment area.
The tour continued on to the restaurant-sized kitchen, two additional guest rooms -- the inn-keeper's rooms -- and finally the servant's quarters, all on the left side of the house.
"I'm still getting lost," Alison admitted, as she and Peter led them back around to see the enormous hot tub, situated in a greenhouse-sort of room, one of those pre-fab tack-on additions a remodeler could purchase from the back of Home magazine. It was off the back right side of the lodge, accessible through a doorway which had been cut into one of the great room's great walls.
"My new favorite spot," Peter said.
Steve turned to Paige to explain. "He's very territorial."
"A guy thing," Alison explained with a little scowl. "For years I've lived with Peter's chair, now it's the damn hot tub."
"Are we allowed to go in it?" Paige asked.
Peter thought for a moment, scratching his chin in a mock contemplation, then he began to laugh. "I guess for you, I'll make an exception." He turned to Steve. "But you're out of luck."
Then they were back where they started.
In the center of the great room, was a grand sweeping staircase leading to the second floor. On that level there were eight bedrooms, all with private baths. And on the third level, a converted attic, four much smaller bedrooms, all having to share one bathroom.
"The cheap rooms," Alison joked.
"That's where we were going to stick Mark," Peter explained.
"Is he here yet?" Steve asked.
Peter cocked an eyebrow. "Mister first-to-arrive, last-to-leave?" Peter said.
"Is this a solo performance?" Steve asked. "Mark Unplugged?"
"Steve," Alison said, "You know him better than that. The poor man can't sleep alone." Then confiding in Paige, in a sarcastic tone, she added, "He's afraid of the dark."
"Should I ask?" Steve said, wondering how old Mark's date would be this time around. Their college friend had a penchant for freshmen.
"Wait and see for yourself," Peter said. "I promise you won't be disappointed."
Paige and Steve followed the new lodge owners up the staircase to the second floor, and turned left, where they were shown to their room, at the end of the hallway.
Alison pulled a black wrought iron skeleton key from her pocket, inserted it into the lock, and turned. "They've never changed the inside locks," she explained, as the door swung open. "And in keeping with this nineteenth century theme, if you need to use the phone, there are a couple of extensions downstairs. None of the room's have them . . . yet."
Alison handed Steve the key, telling them that dinner would be served at nine, and warning them both about one of the lodge's major faults: thin walls.
"How thin?" Paige asked.
"Tonight," Alison said. "Just listen for yourself."
"When this place is full," Peter said, "it should be quite a show."
"Thanks for the warning," Steve said.
Alison nodded, then turned, suddenly sentimental, "I'm really glad you two could make it."
"So am I," Steve said.
Peter nodded, "This is going to be a great weekend. One we'll never forget."
"Now," Alison said, taking Peter's hand, "we'll get out of your face, and let you freshen up."
Once Peter and Alison had departed, once locked inside their room, which Alison had referred to as, the honeymoon suite, Paige turned to Steve and said, "They seem really nice."
"They are really nice," Steve said. "They're the kind of people who'd give you the shirt off their backs. I'd trust them with my life."
"That's a lot of trust," Paige said, wondering if there were any people in her life, outside of her parents, outside of Wesley Selden, about which she'd say that? Steve, perhaps.
As Steve began to meticulously unpack, using the dresser drawers instead of living out of a suitcase, as Paige would undoubtedly have, she turned to take in the room.
It was large and airy and frilly, even the fireplace seemed delicate. No one pastel color seemed to dominate, though each was present, a collection that would have probably made Laura Ashley all hot and bothered. The bed was king-sized, that was a plus. Over it hung a painting of a river which trickled down between mountain cliffs -- it looked exactly like the scenery Paige had witnessed during the two hour drive.
On the far side of the room was the sitting area: a pale green sofa, a matching arm chair, an old wooden rocker, and atop a rickety stand, a television that had to be a decade old.
She flipped it on. And just stared in amazement.
It was tuned to Headline News. The big story was weather. A storm which the news anchor was calling, "The Blizzard of the Century."
Paige listened as the anchor talked about a record seven feet of snow that the storm had dumped in parts of Canada, and of wind chills approaching eighty below.
Then she saw the map. Three states were prominent: Washington, Idaho, and Montana. She saw the time frame. The flurries that were falling outside their bedroom window, would soon become the inch-an-hour of heavy snow that was blanketing Idaho, and that would then become the swirling, frantic, artic mess that had paralyzed Washington.
And then it would all end. The time frame for Northwestern Montana. Monday morning, around six. Give or take a few hours. The expected accumulations: anywhere from three to five feet. Up to seven feet in the higher elevations.
The two words of advice from the anchor: "Stay inside."
"No shit, Sherlock," Paige said, swallowing hard, glancing out the window at the mountains that surrounded them. The drive had been up, two hours of up, climbing, forever climbing.
Definitely higher elevations.
She turned back to face the TV, just as the anchor moved on to other stories of national prominence. Something just in about a jail break in central Idaho. But Idaho seemed like a million miles away, away from the Lambert Ski Lodge, away from Miami, away from Prince Charming. Paige absent-mindedly flipped the channel, once, then again.
"Look," Paige said, suddenly, smiling at the psychedelic colors. "The Brady Bunch. It's that episode where Jan is pissed-off at Marcia."
"Don't think I ever saw that one," Steve answered sarcastically from the bathroom. He was pulling his toiletry items from their leather travel kit, and lining them up on one side of the bathroom sink.
He considered himself organized, Paige considered him anal.
The last item he pulled from the kit was an old fashioned straight razor, which he flipped open once with a calculated flick of his wrist. He preferred it to electrics or today's twin blade gizmos, and had been using it since his dad first showed him how to shave at the ripe age of fourteen. A male tradition in the McRae household.
Placing the now-empty leather kit in the cabinet under the sink, he exited the bathroom, and walked up behind Paige. "Don't know about you," he said, wrapping his arms around her waist, "but I certainly feel all fresh."
"Sorry, bud," Paige said, suddenly flipping channels again. "I'm taking a snow day off from sex."
"I'll sing 'Nights In White Satin.'"
She turned to face him. "Is that a threat or an attempt to seduce me."
"Which way does it work best?"
"As a threat."
"In that case."
And Steve belted out the first line of the song with all the rico suave gusto he could muster.
But he never got beyond that.
Paige shut him up by locking her lips over his, by letting her tongue moon dance the "Funky Chicken" in his mouth.
"Sure you wouldn't care to join us downstairs? We have plenty of room."
Hitchcock smiled warmly at Alison. He was standing before the bureau, pulling clothing from his suitcase. He had a pair of slacks slung over his left hand and forearm, as if he were about to hang them up.
Thanking her for her hospitality, the tray of food and bottles of wine, Hitchcock explained that he and Mr. Goopowski had some business to discuss, and would prefer to do so in the quiet and privacy of his room.
"We're wiped-out," Goopowski explained, a little shrug, a forced yawn. "Traveling all day."
"Of course," Alison said, backing out of the room. Leaving the men to their dinner.
This was so much easier than slinging suits off racks, Alison thought. Than arguing with customers about lost buttons, and grease stains from silk blouses that could never in a trillion years come out. And that forever hiss of the steam. Alison could hear it even now, as if it were lodged in the back of her mind, like the smell of the chemicals which were stuck in the back of her throat, like the oppressive heat which clogged her pores.
No, she thought, descending the stairs, heading toward the lodge's kitchen, she'd miss the dry cleaning business as one would a tumor, though not malignant, certainly causing extreme discomfort.
"Smells good," Goopowski -- Harvey Goopowski, Goop as he was usually known -- said. He pulled the royal blue cotton knit sweater he was wearing over his head, and replaced it with a muscle shirt.
More his style.
In his mid-thirties, Goop was a short, stubby sort of man, with arms as thick as gallon jugs of milk, and skin as white. Born and raised in Liverpool, England, he resembled a Sex Pistols fan who never grew up, one ready to stomp and slam till the end of time. He had a little accent left, but a decade and a half in the United States had taken off a lot of its indecipherable edge.
Almost as if to match wits with his short spiky hair style, Goop had a tattoo of the screaming face from Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" on one massive bicep, and one of supermodel Kate Moss, in the nude, on the other. He was all muscle, a pit bull of a man, with a grin that ate up his entire face. If Goop was happy, you knew it. If he was mad, cross yourself, make funeral arrangements, and say a prayer.
"Mmmm," his traveling companion said, hanging up the slacks finally, and closing the closet door.
He was caught by the image of himself in the full-length mirror as he stretched out his lanky six-two frame. His eyes, blue, for Christ's sake. The hair, once so long, so thick, so brown . . . now so gone. And the goatee. He couldn't wait to shave the damn thing off. Soon. But not for a while. He ran the flat of his right hand -- his good hand, his real hand -- over the flat of his head, then shaking his head slightly, turned, and sat down to eat.
Food made him think immediately of the warden, Norman Johnstone, a towering hunk of burning love that more resembled a half-ton slab of raw veal than anything human.
He pictured the look in the warden's face as he pressed the muzzle of gun under one of his many chins. He could see Johnstone's eyes focused downwards, toward the trigger. They were still looking, still focused, pleading Why did you pay me a million dollars if you were only going to kill me? as the back of his head went screaming into the stratosphere.
"Think of it," he answered at the time, staring down at the over-sized corpse, "as a life insurance policy for your poor grieving widow."
They ate and drank in silence.
Goop watching him as he savored every bite, every morsel.
It had been almost two years since the bald man had enjoyed a meal. Two years since he'd been able to open doors at will. Two years since he'd tasted wine.
Goop refilled his glass.
"Go slow," the tattooed man said. "You're not used to it."
"It's like riding a bicycle," he answered, not bothering to conclude the cliche.
Two years since he'd been with a woman.
He took a long sip of wine -- it was a Merlot, full bodied, heavy on the cherries, with a hint of vanilla and oak. They had requested three bottles with dinner, and they received three bottles. Such service! -- then sat back and took in the decor of his room.
Quite different from what he was used to: beige walls decorated with a Calvin & Hobbes calendar, a wooden crucifix, and a metal mirror, so he could keep track as one long black hair after another turned grey, so he could keep trim the beard which he despised, which he would soon enough trim into the goatee. A few shelves lined with books and six-month old magazines, a sink, a toilet without a seat. A towel. And even a little transistor radio, which was always tuned to a local weather channel.
There was the twin bed, hard and inflexible, and those bars, painted deep chocolate brown.
They reminded him of Haagen Dazs chocolate Sorbet.
His eight foot by ten foot cell was the last at the end of a row of eight. He had no immediate neighbors, there was no one in the two cells closest to his -- they had so recently gone on to the great jail cell in the sky. Electrocution in one case, he fondly recalled the lights flickering on and off. Hanging in the other. The great state of Idaho would go to any lengths to keep its entertainment program varied.
No, the pastels and frills were a far cry from the Facility's death row.
But so was he . . . now.
"Why Hitchcock?" Goop asked, snapping him back, back from thoughts about that chocolate Sorbet -- sharing a pint with his beloved Lauren, all five hundred, twenty wanton calories sliding sinfully down their respective throats.
"My homage to the great director," he explained, for lack of anything better.
"He was a fellow Brit, y'know?" Goop said, bringing back his accent for the occasion.
He nodded his reply.
Standing, Goop pushed aside his empty plate, stretched, and walked over to the closet. From it he pulled a thick aluminum briefcase, which he handed to his companion.
"Six-six-six," Goop said.
Smiling, the bald man set the two combination locks to the correct digits, and popped them open.
"Direct from Germany," Goop said.
It was beautiful. The latest, most advanced prosthetic hand medical science could make . . . this week. He touched the fingertips, then seemed uncannily real. And the nails, there was a gleam to them. He would almost swear they were real.
"Made to the same size specifications as the one you have on," Goop explained.
A lump had formed in his throat. He found his voice catching. He cleared his throat, shut and locked the briefcase, thinking about how lucky he was. How very lucky.
Returning it to the closet, he turned toward his friend, and said, "To quote another famous Brit: 'Am I a lord? And have I such a lady? Or do I dream? Or have I dream'd till now? I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak; I smell sweet savours, and I feel soft things: Upon my life I am a lord indeed.'"
"Let me guess," Goop said. "Johnny Rotten?"
That brought a smile to his face.
A real smile.
It had been almost two years since he last really smiled.
But that dry spell ended now.
From this point forward, Elliot Haring would have reason to be happy, he'd have a lot to be grateful for, a lot to smile about.
SNOW BLIND ©2004 Gorman Bechard - All Rights Reserved