"You're not fooling anyone . . ."
Least of all yourself, he thought, sticking his head under the water, letting the steaming jets attack his thinning hair.
Mark sighed. The phrase you're about overdue for a book haunted him. He didn't need his friends, or his lover, or his editor, his publisher, his agent, anyone to remind him. Jesus H. Christ! He knew it all too well.
Not that he hadn't tried. Three separate and completely different manuscripts were sitting at the bottom of a file drawer in his office back home. Some eighteen hundred pages. Almost a half million words.
There was the thriller, that wasn't thrilling. The sexy, coming-of-age story that was as dull as pound cake. And the stab at social satire that his editor called, "the single most childish piece of work I've ever read."
Well, fuck you too.
Mark stepped from the shower, reached for a towel and began to dry off. What was it about the first book? Where had he found his inspiration? He had just broken up with Alison when he began writing. The words seem to come so easily back then. His confusion, his sexual curiosity came alive on the page.
Raising the towel to the mirror over the sink, Mark wiped a circle clean of steam. He leaned close and looked at himself. Pulling at the skin near his eyes, checking the hair in his nostrils to see if a little clipping needed be done.
"Old," he said. "You're looking old. And all the eighteen-year-olds in the world can't change the fact that you're getting older every day."
Then Mark sighed.
Christ, he'd been doing that a lot lately. But only when he was alone.
Mark Grimaldi, the closet sigher.
The sound of the gunshot startled him.
It rang clear, shaking the porcelain tiles of the bathroom. His mind raced, what the hell could possibly be going on? Turning, he glanced at the door, then wrapping the towel around his waist, opened it, half expecting to be ambushed in the bedroom.
But seeing that the coast was clear, Mark stepped tentatively forward, and pressed his ear to the door which opened onto the hallway. He heard the screams, the shouts, and Elliot's introduction. And then footsteps in the hallway just outside his door. Moving past, rushing past, a frantic tip-toeing.
And the worries of writer's block seemed at once insignificant. While the thought of surviving, of living through the day, took on meaning which he could barely begin to perceive.
Suddenly Mark wanted to get old, a lot older. And he was in no rush to get there.
"Please allow me to introduce myself . . ."
The world was spinning out of control and suddenly God slammed on the breaks, shook a fist at a passing galaxy, then checked in back to see if his groceries had survived the near-crash.
Paige was in the egg carton, two-liter bottles of generic cola had landed atop her thin-shelled world and send the ceiling crashing in, the yolks flying, the whites dripping, oozing, coming up her throat.
She fell to her knees, coughing, spitting, there was blood on the back of her hand as she wiped at her mouth. Blood . . . and . . . Jesus Christ . . . Steve!
". . . Elliot Haring. You may or may not remember a tidy little incident on Christmas Eve two years . . ."
Was there any hope?
Was there anything left?
Goop was standing over Steve, pointing up at the ceiling with his gun. Pointing at . . . his blood. It was splattered on the ceiling, along with . . . Paige felt as if she were going to vomit. She felt as if the bottom had just fallen out from under her feet -- the top crashed in, the bottom fell out -- and she was clinging, holding on, and what for?
". . . and this, lovely lady, which you know as Liana Lambert, is in fact, my partner, Lauren Devereaux . . ."
Clutching at her stomach, holding it from dropping away, Paige turned and glanced at the woman.
Lauren was standing back, turned away, not watching Elliot, not watching anything. Her face hard, as if she were willing the emotions away. And yet, she held her pistol waist high.
How had Paige missed that something terrible was going on? Was it just that she suspected everyone of some little evil in this God-forsaken place, and that the big evil was overlooked.
". . . this enterprise has been some time in the planning, waiting for Mother Nature to cooperate . . ."
Why hadn't Steve just been quiet.
Paige looked again, and saw Goop kick him, forcing his face to turn, turn toward her. Steve's eyes. They were open. Looking at her, searching for a perfect closing line, a little "I love you" whispered before they'd separate or fall asleep. But his head, the top of his head, was gone.
Goop mumbled something about how Steve and Felicity would make a lovely couple, then he snickered the he-he-he.
". . . and combined with the help of my good friend, Mr. Goopowski, and a well-paid insider, I was able to once and for all bid a fond farewell to the Idaho State Correctional Facility . . ."
What could she have done? What could she have said? So fast. So very fast.
Paige couldn't have moved that fast. To throw herself in front of the bullet. But what good would that have done, other than to eliminate the pain she now felt? There'd be another bullet ready, and another after that. And Steve would still be dead, she with him. Together they'd be holding hands, rushing toward that celebrated light, looking down at the scene, wondering about the details together.
". . . all of you will play a part in the death of Elliot Haring and the mysterious Lauren Devereaux . . ."
The laugh, the sick sonofabitching cackle, was still reverberating in Paige's head.
Like a witch in some cheesy b-movie, all high-pitched, and echoing.
Paige looked back over at Goop. He kept nudging Steve with the toe of his shoe. Making Steve move, as if jolts of electrical current were being shot through his otherwise lifeless body.
". . . it's a shame that we couldn't have stuck to our schedule, otherwise we could have savored the day, perhaps gone sledding, or enjoyed the jacuzzi together . . ."
The rage bunched up in the bowels of Paige's heart. They shot through her, not tiny jolts, but nuclear-sized explosions of hatred.
Paige raised herself to a crouching position, and eyed her target. She might die, but the fucker was going down with her.
". . . perhaps build a snowman even, if Mr. Goop's more primal urges had not clouded his sense of responsibility . . ."
She lunged at the still-laughing Goop. Catching the man off guard, knocking him down, knocking the gun out of his hand.
Paige punched him once hard in the face, watching as the pistol slid along the polished hardwood floors, far and away, to under a tall armoire, and out of everyone's reach.
Cursing, calling him who-knew-what, screaming at the top of her lungs, Paige then raised her right elbow high, and smashed down on Goop's adam's apple.
His eyes went wide, as he grasped at his throat, and choked up blood.
Paige raised her elbow and was about to strike down again, one last time for good measure, when Elliot grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked back her head.
Holding her throat with his artificial hand, feeling the warmth, the pulse of her heart through her Carotid artery, Elliot stared into Paige's eyes, as he placed his pistol right between them.
"What were you thinking?" Elliot asked.
Paige spat her reply. Hitting him in the face with a wad of spit, vomit and blood, then wiping what remained off the side of her mouth, the rage in her features so raw and animalistic, that Elliot could only smile, as he clenched up a little on her throat, then pulled back the pistol, so he could wipe away the spit.
"You're going to regret that," Elliot said, very matter-of-factly.
Goop tried to speak. A little blood trickled from the side of his mouth. "Elliot," he managed, making the three syllables sound like gibberish.
"What?" Elliot said.
"Don't," Goop said.
"Don't kill her?" Elliot asked.
He turned and watched as Goop pulled himself to his knees, wiping at his mouth, his eyes. The twisted, screwed-up grin contorting those features into a Halloween mask from hell.
"Let me," Goop said.
"Oh, God . . . no."
Mark was flat on his belly, on the carpet-covered floor of the second floor hallway, crawling away from the staircase. He wanted to crawl home, crawl into a foxhole . . . he wanted to die.
Steve. How could they? He caught glimpses of the body, and Paige, and . . . Jesus H. Christ! They were headed upstairs. He needed to move, he needed to think, fast. If he was going to save himself.
No, he told himself. He was going to help Greta. He was going to do something honorable, if just for once in his God-forsaken life. He'd do the right thing.
There was an exit sign, its light bulb long burned out. Hung high, halfway down the hall, halfway to what had been Steve's room, and over a doorway.
Mark started moving toward it. Walking almost with his elbows and knees, like he imagined they do it in boot camp. Not that he had ever been anywhere near bootcamp, not that he'd found it necessary to crawl since the first year or two of his life.
Standing, quietly turning the knob, the door opened, not onto a gateway to freedom, as Mark had wished. A Twilight Zone escape into another world. He'd have even settled for being the last creature alive on the planet, farsighted, a lover of books with all the time in the world to read, but with no glasses, no ability to ever read the printed word.
Instead, he found a stairway. Narrow and rather dark, leading both up and down. Its walls and stairs were painted the dark brown that seemed to cover most of the outside surfaces. Its handrail was white, and worn, from decades of being held onto.
"Which way?" Mark muttered to himself, closing the door behind him, taking a deep breath, wondering if perhaps he should just stand where he was, forever, of until help arrived.
But how long could that take? he wondered. Days in this weather. Weeks, perhaps. Or could he be forced to stand there for years?
It was six of one, half-dozen of another.
And Greta was down there.
Greta and Alison and Peter. He had to help them, he . . .
Mark moved down one step at a time, treading lightly so as not to make any noise. And with each stair, his determination grew, it doubled, it tripled. It became a force to be reckoned with.
He was going to save her. He was going to save them all.
If only he had an inkling as to where to begin.
If only he knew how.
"Lock her in a room upstairs."
Goop was standing by the fireplace. He held Paige in a head lock, one massive tattooed bicep wrapped around her slender throat, a gun, another Beretta from an endless supply of the 9mm automatics, pressed against the side of her face.
"But Elliot," Goop said, sounding childishly impatient, "I want her . . . now."
Elliot irritably walked over to where Goop was holding Paige.
"Let her simmer," Elliot explained in a tone that only Goop and his captive could hear. "Let her think about what's going to happen." Elliot placed a gentle hand upon the man's shoulder. "Then," he said, "go find the others."
Goop nodded. He gulped hard, and understood. He had undone their plan, the precision. He glanced over at Lauren. Thinking suddenly, realizing how mad she'd be.
"Sorry," Goop said.
"What's done is done," Elliot said. "Now, go."
Goop obeyed, dragging Paige up the staircase, turning left and disappearing down the long hallway.
When the twosome was out of sight, Elliot turned toward the assembled group, and noticed that Peter was slowly raising his hand, as if in grade school.
The gesture caused Elliot to smile. "Yes," he said, motioning at him.
Peter went to speak, but stopped himself short of any sounds, instead giving Elliot a quizzical glance.
"You may speak," Elliot said, enjoying this more than he could ever begin to explain.
Peter swallow hard. Trembling, he touched Alison's shoulder, then his own chest. "Why us?" he asked, his voice light, trembling, the pacifist scared out of his mind.
Right now, Peter wished he were Arnold Schwarzenegger in those action movies, able to rip off the villains' heads with one hand, while sweeping the innocent to safety with the other.
Right now, Peter wished he and Alison, Mark, and Steve -- especially Steve -- were back home.
Elliot took a half-dozen graceful giant steps, and was standing mere inches in front of Peter's face. Eye-to-eye, shoulder to shoulder. Their bodies almost identical in height and weight. Their facial features so similar.
"What?" Peter asked, his voice a mere squeak.
"You could be brothers."
It was Alison who spoke.
With the flat on one hand pressed against her mouth, Alison stared at the men, looking back and forth between Peter and Elliot, her mouth slightly agape under that hand.
Both turned toward her.
But only Elliot moved. He raised his pistol and pressed it under her chin.
"I didn't give you permission to speak," Elliot said.
"Elliot," Lauren said, firmly.
Alison clenched her eyes shut, just as Elliot jerked on the gun, then added, mostly for Lauren's sake, "But since you're so perceptive, I'll let you live."
Elliot turned back to face Peter, who was staring at him, the terror beginning to subside, replaced first by nausea, then a frantic rage.
"She's right," Elliot said. "You and I are built remarkably alike."
"That's why I chose you."
Lauren stepped forward. She had been watching Peter, wondering if he made a move on Elliot, if he knocked the gun out of Elliot's hands, would she come to her lover's rescue, or would she watch as Peter beat him to death with his bare hands? And what of Goop, would she let one of the others, Greta perhaps, retrieve Elliot's pistol and hunt him down?
"Of everyone who entered the contest," Lauren explained, knowing that it would never come to that. Peter would not risk the lives of those he loved on a fifty-fifty shot, at best. Peter didn't have it in him to even hit Elliot, never mind shoot him down. "You reminded me most of Elliot. And . . .," her voice trailed off, ". . . that's what we needed."
"So very convenient," Alison said, glaring at the woman, remembering how beautiful she had found her, and how sad. Losing her husband, at such a young age. Right.
Alison felt so used and stupid. And angry. Because of Steve. Because of Felicity. Because the life she had planned for herself and Peter had just been flushed into a cesspool. Yes, she was angry. Enough to kill, enough to gamble away everything for a little revenge.
Alison figured they had until the storm broke. It was supposed to snow until at least Monday. Monday morning was what the latest forecast had warned. And today was Sunday.
It was Sunday, right?
A day of rest. A day of atonement. A day to sleep late, and spend all afternoon working through the Sunday papers. Not at all, a good day to die.
Lauren shrugged, a faraway sadness in her eyes. "Sometimes life works out that way."
Goop's goodbye to Paige, as he locked her in the honeymoon suite. Her's and Steve's room.
"So you can reminisce," Goop had explained, after figuring out where it was he wanted to put her, and upon seeing the king-sized bed, added, "Besides, you and me can have us a ball on that later." He laughed. "Get it? Make like we're fucking newlyweds."
Paige stood silently in the center of the room, her arms crossed against her chest, listening as his footsteps got farther and farther away.
Listening until there was nothing to hear, except for the occasional creek of the old lodge still settling, and the howl of the wind outside, the light tinging of the frozen flakes, a rap-tap-tapping against the three windows in this corner room.
Taking a deep breath, what seemed like her first breath after being buried alive -- she was surprised she could even remember how -- Paige walked over to the nighttable on what had been her side of the bed, and pulling her purse from the lone drawer, she reached inside.
"What the . . . ?" she said, turning the bag upside down, and dumping its contents onto the bed.
There was the wallet, her badge, the beeper, a compact, lipstick, some gum, a little plastic container of Certs, a small bottle of generic Ibuprofen, an address book with a reproduction of the Man Ray photograph Larmes laminated onto its cover, some loose change, and a condom that must have been a few years old . . . but no Colt Mustang Pocketlite 380.
Not a sign of it.
"Christ!" Paige muttered.
She lunged for the closet, yanking open the door, and retrieving her suitcase. Not bothering to toss it onto the bed, she opened it right there, on the floor in front of the closet. She ran her hands through every square inch, under and over every piece of clothing, the sweaters, jeans, panties, and her one warm pair of heavy wool socks.
But again, nothing. Her Smith & Wesson 9mm was gone.
Standing, Paige kicked the suitcase back into the closet. "Think," she ordered herself.
Haring had no clue that she was a federal agent, otherwise he wouldn't have hesitated to kill her on the spot. But Lauren, she knew, for certain. She overheard the references, and then, just yesterday morning, they had talked about it . . . "What makes a woman join the F.B.I.?" was what Lauren had asked, when under the alias of Liana.
Why hadn't she spilled the beans?
Or . . . could Steve have been playing a little trick on her, pissed that she had brought them in the first place? Hide them somewhere, so Paige wouldn't go pulling out her weapon every time she heard a branch break from the weight of the snow.
Paige walked over to what had been Steve's side of the bed, sat upon the edge, and opened his lone nighttable drawer. It was empty, except for a Gideon's Bible.
She picked up the book, bounced it in her hands a few times, the pages flipping open. Glancing down, she read the first passage to catch her eye: "But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also . . ."
"Fuck that," Paige said, slamming the Bible shut, throwing it down into the drawer, and slamming that shut as well.
Steve wouldn't have touched her weapons. He had too much respect for her, and understood, more than any man she had ever been with, how much she respected the job.
"Focus," she whispered.
It hurt to think.
But Paige had to think, she had to plan. She had to put aside her grieving -- she couldn't believe he was dead, she couldn't believe he was dead, oh, Goddamn it all, she couldn't believe -- and save the others. Stop the loss of civilian life now.
And, if possible, save herself.
Herself. Paige thought about dying all the time. She thought about her parents dying. Her friends dying. She pictured her own funeral, who would be there? What would she be wearing? Would anyone cry? And how did she die? In the line of fire? From old age? Cancer? Aids? An infection from an ingrown toenail?
Certainly not at the hands of some psychos in a ski lodge in Montana -- such a possibility had never creased her vivid imagination.
She imagined old lovers passing on, co-workers, people she had arrested, the kids who used to make fun of her in highschool, everyone she loved, everyone she ever loved, everyone she ever hated . . . Steve.
"Oh, God," she murmured.
It hurt to breath.
But Paige still forced herself. A few deep, even breaths, as she walked over to one of the windows. It offered her a view of the parking lot on the side of the lodge. She made out the shape of the Wrangler, and probably a half-dozen other vehicles . . . just lumps really, all frosty, Pillsbury dough-boy-like. Unfriendly terrain covered by what had to be at least three feet of snow.
It hurt to see.
But still, Paige tried to find the road, hoping that it might have been plowed. She pressed her face to the glass, and saw nothing.
She knew where the road should have been, but it was just part of the snow-covered landscape. A field of white . . . so pure, so driven. How long would it take for these Northwestern Montana roads to be plowed? She hadn't asked, figuring that by the time they were ready to leave -- next Saturday morning -- the snowfall would have long ago ceased, and the roads as clear as the day was endless. Hell, she probably even imagined that most of the snow would have melted off in some freak Indian summer.
"You're delusional," Paige said to herself.
It hurt to be alive.
But she was alive, and in one piece. It was Steve who was . . . gone.
And if there was one thing Paige could do, it was to avenge that death. And not by arresting Elliot Haring, not by putting him back behind bars -- death row, or not -- but by ending his sick existence in the same manner in which he ended Steve's life.
Elliot Haring, what did she remember?
Not much really. Paige was in the middle of her own horror show at the time. Out in the land of make-believe, where a famed movie producer was moonlighting on the side, making snuff films. It was The Player meets Nightmare on Elm Street, as one unnamed producer joked the pitch would go.
Haring and what happened that Christmas Eve night seem so far away, just another blurb on the evening news, like about what was happening in Bosnia, or about snow storms in New York City . . . or a just-in story about a jailbreak in Idaho on Headline News.
Goddamnit all! She wished Haring had stayed that way.
But the moment that sonofabitch jammed his gun under Steve's chin and pulled the trigger, it became personal. Nothing to do with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, everything to do with Paige Turner.
He was Prince Charming and the Grim Reaper all rolled into one. He was that SOB in the Lexus to the umpteenth power.
And Paige promised herself, she promised to Steve, that Haring's life would end on the same violent note.
It was a promise she'd keep . . . or die trying.
Or die trying.
Paige repeated the phrase over and over and over in her head, as she moved to the window flanking her side of the bed. It looked out onto the pro-shop, ski lift, the trails, and somewhere, a storage barn which no one had ever bothered pointing out, and . . . someone was out there.
Paige could barely make out the figure as it struggled against the wind, plodding through the drifts, and rage of the blizzard.
They were moving toward the house, purposefully.
Not another lost soul caught in the storm, but . . . the hair . . . the knapsack slung over a shoulder . . .
"Shane," Paige said softly.
Should she risk banging on the window?
No, he'd never hear her, but the monsters downstairs most assuredly would.
Paige watched as he trudged toward the back of the house, crouched down low, in case anyone was watching from above. And then disappeared from her limited view.
She went back to the closet, pulled out her suitcase, as well as Steve's.
Opening them, Paige began assembling the warmest ensemble. From Steve's she retrieved some thermal underwear -- tops and bottoms -- that he had purchased, along with those flannel shorts, just for this trip. It would be a little large, but would definitely do the trick. Then there was her one pair of wool socks, a thick wool sweater, a turtle neck, the leggings she had on, and jeans.
Layers. Lots of layers. Layers of hot air trapped against the skin.
Didn't forecasters always advise layers in conditions such as this? Wasn't that what she remember from her years in New England . . . no, not hardly.
Her memories had little to do with layers.
Or had she been in Miami so long, that she completely erased such advisories from her memory?
Paige made a pile of the clothes she would need, then pulled her leather bomber from its hanger in the closet. It was old and worn, the black faded and crinkled in places, with a slight tear at the edge of one of the outside pockets, and lots of zippered compartments inside. It was from her New England college days, from her Quantico days, her pre-Floridian days. And though she vowed back then she'd never travel anywhere cold enough to have to ever wear it again, she kept it around nonetheless. Like an old friend, there when you really needed it. Besides, it looked great with jeans, and on rare occasions it did get chilly in south Florida.
Very rare occasions.
On this trip, Paige had been pretty sure that it would come in handy.
If only she known how handy.
Slinging it over the back of a chair, Paige then began her search for a weapon. Something to use on Goop when feeding time rolled around. Something to bring the odds down into her favor, two against one, instead of three.
She walked into their bathroom, and spotted it there.
It was as if it were being lit from above, a spotlight from the heavens.
A gift from Steve.
Paige looked upwards, forced a warm smile, then gently picked it up off the edge of the sink.
"Thank you," she said softly, closing her eyes to stop the flow of tears.
SNOW BLIND ©2004 Gorman Bechard - All Rights Reserved