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T. Alex Miller
1 Vail 7 A Novel By T. Alex Miller Frisco, Colorado Copyright 2009 Chapter 1 They were about two-thirds up the mountain on the old chairlift when it stopped, then started to roll backwards after a violent twitch on the cable. Dana grabbed Tom’s arm as they both felt the backwards momentum build quickly. “It’s a rollback!” she yelled. “It won’t stop. We have to jump!” This just minutes after Dana, who’d been riding chairlifts since she was about 5, had told a nervous Tom it was a piece of cake. His first time … and, apparently, his last. They both looked down. Already, the ground was racing past in a blur of rocks, trees and patches of dirty snow left over from winter. Jumping was already an impossibility
given the speed the lift had attained. They watched the chairs on what would normally be the downhill side careering up the hill, jumping on the line like ants on a string. Dana saw one of them bounce past a lift tower and fly right off the haul rope and into another chair. Both plummeted down to land in a tangle mass on a rocky shelf. Dana heard Tom scream an inhuman cry as the chair carrying the two of them zipped over a knoll and toward the inevitable confrontation with the bullwheel at the bottom.
2 Painting lift towers was a sucky job, but for a lifetime ski-area guy like Trip Bellmore, it was better paying and steadier work than being a rafting guide – something a lot of his buddies did in the summer. Trip liked to think himself as something above that kind of gig. After all, after nearly 15 years working Vail Mountain, he’d worked himself up from a lift operator to trail crew to assistant director of mountain operations. He even had a business card now, although so far he’d only handed them out to his mother and his sister. Dana had taken the card, looked at it solemnly, then kissed him on the forehead and told him she was proud of him. That was three years ago, and unless the current mountain manager somehow dropped dead, the assistant gig was as far as he was likely to rise within the corporate structure of Vail Resorts. “You’re a lifer, just like me,” said his boss, Arn. “I’m not going anywhere, so that means you’re second fiddle until I kick it or retire.” Trip just laughed, looking at the hard features and lean figure of Arn. He’d live to be a hundred, probably still skiing bumps and hiking the state’s highest peaks in summer. The locals say you can’t live off the scenery, but that’s what the ski companies seemed to expect with the salaries they paid. Almost everyone he knew worked another job on top of what they did on the mountain. Trip was actually lucky in that he made enough to stick to his main gig on the mountain
3 in winter and shift over to help lift maintenance in summer. Sometimes that meant the relatively exciting work of helping put in a new lift. Mostly, it meant painting lift towers and replacing things like decking and lift shacks. This year, though, the lift manager, Bobby Bibb, told him he’d hired a “bunch of Mexicans” to paint the lifts. “They’re legal and all,” he said, looking past Trip to a spot on the wall above a tattered Salomon poster. “Just cheaper. Budget cuts from the powers-that-be. You know the drill.” “Screw Bobby Bibb. You can go work for Tony Bing.” It was the day after the ski area closed; he was sitting in the Paradise Brewpub, halfway into his second pint of pale ale with AirLane. A veteran of even more years on the hill than Trip, AirLane was still a lift mechanic, spending his days either on snowmobiles or ATVs and sporting ten fingernails that would never be clean. “Tony Bing is a slut,” Trip said. “A real estate slut.” “Yeah, so? His money’s as green as Vail Resorts’.” That was true enough. Bing may be the worst kind of resort-town developer – a carpetbagger from Texas with no sense of the land he was willing to despoil for profit – but he was exactly the kind of guy locals ended up working for. At least until they went bust or left town gorged on profit, they paid regular, they paid well and they had plenty of work.
4 Bing’s plan had been in the works for years: 3,000 homes
built on the side of Black Gore Mountain, just across the valley from Vail and Beaver Creek. Not content with the potential windfall he stood to make on the sale of the lots, Bing also had plans to build a miniature ski area, a terrain park only. There was no way he was going to compete with Vail’s 5,000 skiable acres or Beaver Creek’s highbrow allure, but he spotted a trend among the younger freeskier and snowboarder crowd: They didn’t give a shit about thousands of acres of terrain, so long as they had halfpipes and rails to practice their tricks on. They didn’t need expensive high-speed lifts, either. Trip couldn’t help but admire the plan. He knew from firsthand experience how much Vail spent on lifts, grooming and overall mountain maintenance and upkeep. A small terrain park with a $20 lift ticket could do well against the behemoth’s $85 cost. Bing had even contrived to purchase two old fixed-grip double chairs from Vail Resorts – buying them from an Oregon ski area that had originally purchased them by upping the price and securing them before they even left the valley. “He’s smart,” Trip said, peering into his beer. “I don’t know about building 3,000 houses no local could afford, but the terrain park, that’s a good idea.” “Well, he’s got them two old Poma chairs from Vail,” AirLane said. “An’ guess what: He don’t know the first thing about getting them put in. And there’s no way Poma’s going
5 to help him, what with how old they are and not wanting to piss off Vail.” “Yeah?” “So, Trip, for shit’s sake, go to the man and offer your services. Charge him out the ass. An’ take me along for the ride.” Ever since the ski company had rescinded the rule about on-mountain employees having facial hair, AirLane had sported a long goatee, red now streaked with gray and long enough to disappear into the top of the Carhart overalls he wore at all times. The filthy Doppelmyr hat was just as much a fixture, as was the imploring, searching pair of eyes that always seemed to Trip to be asking for something. Appearance-wise, AirLane was about as appealing to a potential employer as a child molester. But he was a hard worker who knew his way around a lift. Trip could spend the summer bartending, as he’d done some years in the past. He was a reformed binge drinker, though, and the prospect of too much time in the company of out-ofwork drunks and rich gapers made him ill. “How the hell can two guys put in two lifts in one summer,” Trip said, his mind already working through the details of how it could be done. “Well, I’m pretty damn sure he’ll give you money to hire some other idiots,” AirLane said. “You know Atilair closed up in Idaho, so some of them boys’ll be looking for work.”
6 Trip knew about the demise of Atilair. He also knew the lift director up there, a former Vail guy named Petey Moore who knew the old Poma doubles and triples better than himself. “Well, might be worth looking into,” Trip said, setting down his glass still about a quarter full and standing up. “Another one?” AirLane said, his eyes searching Trip’s for signs of weakness. “Nope, I’m done. I’m going to the movies with Dana. Wanna come?” AirLane signaled the bartender for another pint. “Nah. I’m gonna get shit-faced and stagger home to the wife and kids. Tina’s home now, polishin’ her rolling pin.” “OK.” “Hey Trip, you know, you keep having dates with your sister, you ain’t never gonna get any. Move on, go on some real dates.” Trip smiled and patted AirLane on the shoulder. “I like Dana.”
She was waiting for him in front of the movie theater, holding the tickets in her hand. Her face brightened visibly when she saw Trip emerge from his Subaru. “Hey, Sis. What are we seeing tonight?” She hugged him, with a bit more emphasis than usual.
7 “What’s up?” he said, pulling back to search the eyes of his big sister, eyes he’d known all his life and could read like posters. “Nothing, just work crap, I guess.” “You guess?” She grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the doors. “That, plus I’m an aging lesbian in a town full of guys and hetero 20-something chicks in heat. And, it’s the end of the ski season so even the chance of hooking up with a visiting dyke are limited.” “And don’t forget: Your only dates are with your bitterly divorced younger brother.” “Yep, there’s that. But there’s always popcorn to cheer me up.” Trip paid for their tickets and decided not to remind Dana that popcorn depressed her. Something about how people just sat there in the dark, mechanically lifting handfuls of the stuff to their mouths and “masticating like billy goats.” Making so much noise that you’re hard-pressed to even hear the movie. For Trip, their dates to the movies weren’t about the films or the popcorn but about the safe, almost womblike environment he and Dana were able to conjure together. Oftentimes, they still held hands, like they did as kids traipsing around the nearly empty summer streets of Vail. Back then, before it occurred to the mountain company to market summer, you could fire a cannon up Bridge Street and not worry about hitting anything. Now, summer brought out
8 the kind of gapers that made Dana crazy: Utterly ignorant, brain-dead tourists whose experience of the mountains as an ecosystem was limited to glancing at them from inside their vehicles on their way to their condo. “They don’t even know there’s a river.” She said it quietly, as a kind of revelation, even though she’d made the point a thousand times before. They were sitting outside Loaded Joe’s in Avon, sipping drinks and talking about the lousy movie they’d just seen. “Oh, Dana …” Trip began. She waved her hand, not about to be dismissed by another observation about how there was little she could do to educate the tourons. “Listen, Trip, if they don’t have any idea about what this valley is beyond what man has built, how the hell are they ever going to care about helping to preserve it?” “It’ll never be their job, Dana. You know that. Hell, that’s why you’re here.” He sipped at his latte and studied his sister’s face. Dana was the project director of the Eagle Valley Resource Coalition, a job she inherited when her predecessor was convicted of eco-terrorism (burning Hummers at a car dealership in Denver). That wasn’t Dana’s style at all – something she had to reaffirm to the Coalition board on several occasions during her interview process. She organized river clean-up days, fretted about the water temperature and the algae content of the Eagle River and spent many of her days in the field, looking for lynx tracks
9 or bear scat. And she spent a lot of time in local classrooms, having kids dissect owl pellets or showing them her worn cross-section model of the Eagle River’s bed. Now, she was gazing at a family that was emerging from a motor home the size of a C-130. Big as it was, the great vehicle still listed to one side as the colossal mom and dad descended, followed by two commensurately obese girls. If Trip had to sketch a stereotype of a gaper family, this was it: Oversized sneakers, tent-like shorts, T-shirts that contained messages like “Wall Drug, South Dakota” or “Colorado: Rocky Mountain High.” Predatory eyes lit their otherwise vacant expressions. “They’re hungry,” Trip said. “Thirsty, too,” said Dana, adding in a whisper: “Gaper go home!” Trip bristled involuntarily. As an employee of Vail Resorts, he’d been admonished annually at the HR pep meetings to never use a word like “gaper” or “turkey” to describe the “guests.” Like all locals, he knew all too well that his job wouldn’t exist without them, and he did his best to tolerate even the most obnoxious behavior. Dana, on the other hand … “They’re like a plague upon the land,” she said, as if pronouncing a sentence. She leaned back and sipped at her drink and sighed. “But, then, we’re all a plague upon the land. Human beings are the worst thing to happen to the
10 Earth since that meteor stuck the Yucatan 65 million years ago.” “OK,” Trip said, smiling at her. “Anything else new?” Dana edged closer to him, lowering her head nearer the table. Trip followed. “Is it a big secret?” he whispered. “Yes.” Trip waited a moment. “Well …?” “I shouldn’t tell you.” “Shouldn’t tell me what?” Dana reached for both his hands and squeezed. “I found some!” She leaned back with a smile on her face. Trip studied her expression, then leaned forward and began whispering again. “Cats? Did you find cats?” She nodded, her eyes shining. “Actual cats?” he said. “Or tracks and scat?” There was no one else on the deck at Loaded Joe’s, but the enormity of what Dana was telling him kept them both whispering, hunched over the table. “Just scat so far. But I’m getting close. Given the time of year, I’m hoping there are kittens. Can you imagine that, Trip? A litter of lynx kittens, right here in our valley?” Trip straightened up and let out a breath. The presence of lynx, a reintroduced endangered species, was like a nuclear bomb to developers in a mountain resort area. Other than one lift upgrade planned for the following year, Vail Resorts
11 didn’t have any projects that would be affected, but Tony Bing sure as hell did. And so did Mandelbaum, the guy from Florida building Alpen Cliff Meadows, the private resort on the other side of Battle Mountain. It all depended on where the cats were calling home, and how big their range was. And then, a week later, she told him she was wrong. It wasn’t lynx, just a family of run-of-the-mill bobcats. “Still very cool, and very cute, those kittens. But not lynx.” A month or so later, his big sister was dead. And not just dead, mangled beyond belief in the dead boughs of a beetlekilled lodgepole pine nearly 200 feet from the lower terminal of the lift. After two decades working around chairlifts, there wasn’t a noise Trip hadn’t heard before. From the simple sound of a grip bumping over a lift-tower sheave to the smorgasbord of unique noises that emanate from a detachable gondola, all of them were imprinted on his brain as the backing soundtrack to the life he led on the hill. But on this early July day, as he was working in the top motor room of the second lift being installed at Tony Bing’s terrain park, Screamin’ Eagle, the sound he heard was the sickening groan of metal on metal, followed by a tremendous whirring and punctuated at the end by a series of crashes and, yes, a horrific screaming. The old Vail 7 chair was to be renamed “Bitchin’ Badger,” and it was just visible through the trees about 200 yards
12 south of the lift Trip was working on (a greatly shortened version of Vail’s Chair 5, now tentatively named the “Mighty Moose.”) When Trip ran out of the partially built motor room, Vail 7 was already out of control, with chairs flying off both the lower and upper bullwheels. For a lift mechanic, watching a chair you built – or at least reconstructed – roll back like this was tantamount to a ship’s captain watching his vessel sink with all hands. He had no idea his sister was on the lift, and that she was already dead. And although he knew at this point there wasn’t a thing he could do to stop the destruction, he jumped on his ATV and sped to the top of the 7 chair, getting there at about the same time the lift had finally stopped. Trip walked around the many mangled chairs lying about and came to a stop under the motor room. The haul rope was still clinging to the bullwheel and some of the lift towers, but in other places it had fallen off completely, and the rope itself – spliced at great expense just last week by a French engineer who’d flown to Vail for that single purpose – was a twisted mess. “Holy fucking shit.” It was all he could think to say. There was no one around to share in the scene. Remarkably, the control pedestal next to the loading area was still standing, and Trip crossed to it and pushed in the emergency stop. He heard the hydraulic release as the e-brake clamped onto the bullwheel. Had
13 someone been up here to do that a few minutes before, he thought, none of this would have happened. But who was running the lift in the first place, and why? Then, a cold chill sliced through his entire body as the realization sunk in: If anyone was on this lift, they were toast. He pulled the walkie-talkie off the chest strap where it lived and keyed the button. “AirLane! AirLane! Come in, this is Trip.” No answer. It was July 3, and he’d given the crew the day off for the holiday. AirLane had said he “might could maybe” come up to help with some of the motor room stuff on Chair 5, which Trip took to mean he wouldn’t see any sign of him. “Anyone on this frequency, come in?” He pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. After telling dispatch to get the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office up to Screamin’ Eagle Terrain Park, he got back on the ATV and ran down the trail under the chair. He saw a few chairs had fallen off in the middle of the line, but suspected the worst damage would be at the bottom, where gravity would have flung chairs with even more force than at the top. As he neared the bottom terminal, he marveled at the destruction at the same time his eyes scanned the surrounding area for anyone unfortunate to have been on this wild ride. “Oh, shit!” There was a form, someone, lying face down a few hundred feet from the terminal. Trip ground to a halt, jumped off
14 and touched the man’s shoulder. There was a tremendous amount of blood, but he couldn’t tell where, exactly, it was coming from since the man was so completely battered. Both legs and one arm were bent at impossible angles, and Trip reached for a wrist to check for a pulse he doubted was there. But it was, ever so faint. He put his hand on the man’s shoulder and gently turned him so he could see his face. No one he knew. “Hey! Hey man, can you hear me?” A slight groan, the man’s eyes flickered open to reveal what Trip would later think of as Tom Welter’s death mask: The undeniable look of a man who knows he is about to part ways with life. “Just hang on, man. Help is on the way. I, I don’t think I should move you or anything, so just, just hang tight.” The man groaned again, then tried to utter a word. “What’s that? I can’t understand? Was there anyone else with you?” The man closed his eyes and Trip looked around, scanning for the telltale sign of clothing against the backdrop of green and brown. The man tried to speak again. After several attempts, Trip was able to understand at least one word: “Dana.”
15 Chapter 2 Detective Sergeant Jill Stewart was still tripping over packing boxes in her Gypsum townhome, even though she’d moved in more than four months ago. Since moving downvalley following her divorce, she and her 5-year-old daughter Morgan were still trying to decide what color to paint the girl’s room and how to position the furniture in the living room. But it had been an unusually busy spring and early summer for the sheriff’s office’s first-ever female detective. There was the campground shooting near Wolcott, then a suicide in West Vail that looked a lot like a murder to Jill. She also had to deal with a lot of petty crap, like missing person follow-ups and check fraud investigations – things she nevertheless relished since she now did it all with the title “detective” in front of her name. She was getting Morgan ready for another day at preschool day camp when she heard the scanner crackle with news of the chairlift accident at Screamin’ Eagle. Jill wasn’t a skier or a snowboarder, and she’d never heard of the place. Was it part of Vail, she wondered, or Beaver Creek? “Mommy! Loud! Too damn loud!” Morgan was taking time off eating her Reese’s Puffs to cover her ears with her hands. She pointed to the scanner, and Jill turned it down slightly. The “too damn loud,” she knew, was yet another lingering gift from her ex, Jason. “Please don’t say that word, Morgan. You know Mommy has to listen to the scanner, sweetheart. It’s Mommy’s job.”
16 It sounded like there was at least one fatal up at the mountain, and Jill wondered, as she always did, if this incident would concern her. Or, more to the point, would she have to make it concern her. Certainly a chairlift accident would be a change of pace from the usual day-to-day stuff she’d dealt with as a regular sheriff’s deputy – a position she’d held for eight years with the department. She called Ted Cunningham, the undersheriff, on his cell. “Yeah-ow Jill, what’s up?” “The chairlift accident, what’s the story?” “Don’t know much yet, Jill. I’m on the way, but sergeant tells me it looks like some kind of freak accident. Whole thing let go and rolled back down the hill. Looks like two fatals.” “Anything I can do?” “Not yet, probably, let me get up there and — hold on a sec …” She listened as Ted talked on the radio to someone at the scene. Morgan looked up at her and showed her empty bowl. “All finished, Mommy!” Ted came back on. “You know, Jill, you could do me a favor. You know the Colorado Tramway Board or whatever it’s called?” Jill assured him she did. “Cool, well see if you can get a hold of someone there and tell them we need help – an inspector or something like that.”
17 “Will do Ted. Anything else?” “Tell Morgan my little Lisa wants to do another play date soon. Maybe this weekend?” “I’m sure she’d love that, Ted, thanks. I’ll tell her.” After dropping off Morgan at the day camp, Jill got to her office, found the website of the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board and left a message on their answering machine. Other than Old Kim at the front desk, the office was empty: everyone up at the accident site. “Those boys not letting you play again?” Jill winced. Old Kim was a conversation vortex. “No, Kim, I just need to do some research from here,” Jill told her, moving purposefully back to her office. “Well, you ask Old Kim and she’ll tell you those swinging dicks don’t want a pair-a boobs acting like one of them.” Jill slowed down and turned back to Old Kim. “Is that really all you think it boils down to, Kim? Boobs and dicks?” “Well sure honey, s’what makes the world go ‘round.” She couldn’t resist another question. “Then what about your boobs, Kim? Which look to me like about a 40 triple-D? How do they stack up?” “Dun’t matter,” Old Kim said, turning back to the halfeaten bear claw on her desk. “I’m no threat — too ugly for them to worry about neither way.”
18 Jill sighed and was about to attempt a positive comment on Old Kim’s appearance when she was saved by her phone ringing. “Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Detective Sergeant Jill Stewart speaking.” It was someone from the Tramway Board, an inspector named Ben Kirk. When she told him what she knew of the accident, he told her he was on his way. “I’m in Lakewood, so it’ll take me about two hours. I was up there just last week looking at that lift, so I know where it is.” “Thanks,” Jill said. “I’ll meet you at the site.” She hung up and smiled. Now she had a perfectly good excuse to go up there. Not that she needed one, she thought. She was, in fact, the only detective in the department, and this absolutely looked like something that needed investigating. She didn’t know much about skiing or chairlifts, being one of those ski country locals who didn’t ski, but she’d figure it out. She’d just figure it out as she went.
Before any of the rescue guys or cops showed up, Trip had found Dana’s body. She was about 15 feet off the ground, tangled in the branches of a lodgepole pine that was red and dead: the unmistakable sign of the pine beetles that had killed thousands of acres of pine all around the state. Dana, who loved trees above all things, hated to see the
19 widespread destruction in the forest while she decried the ideas floated to combat the beetles. It was, she said, a natural phenomenon akin to a great fire, an act of nature that would benefit the forest in the end. Trip couldn’t decide if her landing in one of the dead trees’ arms was ironic, fitting or insulting, but after climbing up and confirming that she was dead, he wanted her down as soon as possible. He had rope, a climbing harness and even a ladder in the lift shack, and it didn’t take him very long to complete the task. But somewhere in those 15 feet, wrangling the dead body of the only person who’d ever made complete sense to Trip, he felt a seismic shift. I’m alone now. When the first sheriff’s deputies showed up, they found him cradling Dana’s body below the tree. Covered in her blood and crying freely, Trip looked up and gave them a look that stopped them in their tracks. Deputy Joe Mann turned to Deputy Bill Stone and whispered: “Better give him a minute.” They both knew Trip and Dana, and looking around, it didn’t take much imagination to put together what happened. Bill Stone, for one, knew Trip was working on the lifts up here, and he could only imagine how Trip would feel it was revealed that anything he’d done putting it in had contributed to Dana’s death. “There’s another guy over there. Dead too.”
20 Trip was pointing to the body of Tom Welter, and both deputies hustled over to it as the sound of more sirens coming up the dirt road consumed the forest.
“Well, it’s unprecedented, so far as I know.” Ben Kirk was responding to a question from Jill Stewart about how common rollbacks are at ski areas. “Really? Like, never?” “Like never. Never ever.” Ben and Jill were at the top terminal the day after the accident. Both wore surgical gloves and were picking through some of the twisted chairs littering the ground. “But we’re not going to find anything out here,” Ben said. He pointed up. “The story is up there, in the motor room.” They climbed the ladder and poked through the hole into the old Poma motor room. There was a pervasive smell of cooked motor oil and burned rubber, and Jill could see that some of the chairs had bunched up on one side of the enormous wheel. Ben pointed to them. “That’s part of the reason the thing stopped eventually. These chairs just started piling up as the grips slipped on the haul rope.” “The haul rope, that’s the big wire the chairs hang from?” Ben smiled at her. “Let me give you a quick primer on lifts, Detective. This one here is, or was, Chair Number 7 on Vail Mountain, and it was one of the first installed when the mountain opened in
21 the early 1960s. It’s what’s called a ‘fixed grip’ chair, as opposed to a detachable, like a gondola or a high-speed quad.” “What’s the difference?” Jill asked, happy that he’d called her “Detective” and not “Little Lady” or something stupid. “Well, a fixed-grip was all there was, pretty much, until the high-speeds started getting built in the 1980s. Fixedgrip just means that the grip – the part of the chair that holds it onto the haul rope – doesn’t move. On a detachable, the grip has a big ol’ spring that holds it on there. That’s what lets it clamp onto the haul rope after it’s slowed down in the terminal. The idea is you can have a lift going 1,000 feet per minute, but people can’t get on the thing going that fast. You have to get the chair off the haul rope, move it around the bullwheels at top and bottom more slowly, then gradually bring it back up to speed and let the spring grip grab back on.” Jill nodded, pretty sure she understood. Ben continued. “But none of that has to do with this old lift, which is about as basic as they come. This electric motor here turns this wheel – what we call the ‘bullwheel’ – and the chairs just hang on the rope. The motor’s at the top, so at the bottom there’s no real components other than another bullwheel, and a few other things.” Ben then went on to show her the braking system.
22 “Typically, you hit the stop button and turn the motor off, the lift stops,” he said. “The gears in the transmission keep gravity from pulling the chairs back down the hill — like putting your car in ‘park.’ There’s two other things in place to prevent a rollback from happening. One is the emergency brake, which is right there.” He pointed to what looked like a big clamp on the bullwheel. “See how it’s grabbed onto the bullwheel? Trip Bellmore said he hit the e-brake when he got up here, more or less for the hell of it, since the damage had already been done. But that’s instinct for anyone who’s ever worked lifts; I’d’ve done it too.” Jill was taking notes, and she scribbled: “Post-accident e-brake activation normal: Kirk.” Now, Ben pointed to another spot on the bullwheel. “The last line of defense in a rollback situation is this dog, this big piece of metal that’s supposed to drop down and stop the wheel turning.” “It looks like it’s almost fallen off completely,” Jill said. “That’s right. The bolts that hold it in place are … well, they look to me like they were either only partly installed, or they were loosened.” Jill scribbled, Ben stood up and stroked his beard. “So, there’s lots more to look at, but it’s hard to call this an accident. It’s either gross negligence or …”
23 There was a moment where they both stared vacantly at the motor and bullwheel. “Or sabotage?” Jill said. “Yeah, I guess you’d have to call it that.” Ben walked over to the open door at the back of the motor room and Jill followed, still scribbling notes. “Beautiful day,” he said. “Yes, it is,” Jill said, suddenly aware that she was alone with a man – the first time that had happened in some time. It hadn’t escaped her notice that Ben Kirk was a goodlooking guy, even though she didn’t typically like guys with beards. He was tall, probably six-two or more, and in his khaki shorts and T-shirt it was easy to see he was fit. Probably mid-40s – well within her age range – and, most importantly, no ring. “You know, Detective, I know Trip Bellmore pretty well. I’m the industry rep on the Tramway board; my day job is with Poma America. I’ve worked hand-in-glove with Trip and his boss, Arn, on a lot of projects. And it’s hard for me to think of someone who’s more professional, more meticulous than Trip.” “So you don’t think the gross negligence option is an option?” Ben turned and walked back to the bullwheel and pointed to the bolts holding the chock. He kneeled down and Jill knelt next to him.
24 “Now look, you can’t rule out anything at this point. Maybe Trip screwed up, all I’m saying is I doubt it. And look at those bolt heads.” “They look scratched.” “Exactly.” “But wouldn’t that happen when they were installed, tightened?” Ben shook his head. “Not really. You have the correct-size socket head or wrench, you crank those suckers down as much as you can there still won’t be scratches visible like that.” They were close, an inch apart, and Jill was adding another item to her mental checklist about Ben: He smelled good, like ‘clean man’ with a touch of spice. Was it cologne, she wondered, or something else? Then, suddenly, she felt her body listing to one side as she momentarily lost balance. She reached out and grabbed Ben’s shoulder, and he quickly circled her with his arm and brought her back to center. “Whoops! There we go!” was all he said, and he immediately removed his arm. “So, what are you saying?” Jill said, in a slightly choked voice. He seemed so unperturbed, yet she was practically swooning. What was going on? She quickly tried to estimate where she was in her cycle. Was she ovulating or something? Here she was, investigating what may well be a murder case, and she was ready to do it on the floor of a chairlift motor room with a guy she’d just met.
25 “What I’m saying, or what I’m guessing, at this point, is that whoever loosened these bolts didn’t have the exact size wrench, or they used a big Crescent – an adjustable wrench. It’d be hard to loosen bolts that big with one of those, but with a cheater bar, maybe.” Jill stood up and tried her best to get back into the mindset of serious detective rather than ovulating divorcee. “Well, I’m planning to interview Trip Bellmore this afternoon. He’s not much of a suspect, but he’s the only one we’ve got so far.” Ben nodded. “I’ve got to stay up here, take some pictures, write up my report then get back down the hill,” he said. “I’ll call you Friday, after the holiday.”
Death is a pain in the ass. So thought Trip as he was steeped in the bureaucracy of mortality. Just when you wanted to crawl into a hole and die yourself, there were a million things to take care of, questions to answer and people to deal with. He’d just returned from the county medical examiner’s office, where he’d filled out forms and identified Dana’s body. He resisted touching her, but let his eyes linger over the still face, trying to remember its animated form and turning away as the ghoulish hopelessness of it all crashed in.
26 Now, he was sitting in the office of Carla Odekirk, Dana’s boss at the Coalition. He was early, and he spent the time looking at the maps and photos that covered the walls. Topographic maps showed mine tailings and other waste that awaited cleanup; aerial photographs depicted the Eagle River, with trouble areas highlighted in red; photos of grinning volunteers, Carla and Dana on a raft trip together; certificates of appreciation from the towns of Vail, Avon, Eagle and the county. Trip stopped at one large, framed photograph that showed Carla and Dana decked out at some kind of fundraiser. Dana was wearing a man’s white tuxedo while Carla sported a tiny black dress with a plunging neckline. They looked like an almost-perfect couple, and the two women liked to joke that it was a shame Carla wasn’t gay. He heard someone enter the office and sensed Carla behind him. “Unbelievably beautiful,” he said, turning slowly. “Both of you.” Carla just folded herself into Trip’s arms, and they stood like that for a long time, swaying and sobbing gently, as if engaged in some bizarre dance. The death thing was new to Trip, and he wondered, after a time, what the accepted period for mourning hugs was. If he started to break it up, would Carla think him unfeeling? Or would she welcome the chance to move on? Before he could think too much about it, though, some imperceptible signal ran through them both, and
27 they moved apart. It reminded Trip of makeout sessions in high school, when he used to puzzle over how the partners knew when to stop. Carla sat on the small, ratty couch and motioned for Trip to sit next to him. “Tell me everything you know,” she said simply, and Trip recounted the previous day’s events as best he could. He hadn’t been up to the motor room himself yet, but he’d spoken to Ben Kirk, who’d told him about the broken piece on the bullwheel. He assured Carla that he’d inspected the piece in question himself on numerous occasions, and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. “Trip, this is fucked up to even think about, but was Dana whacked by someone, someone who needed to shut her up?” “That’s what I was going to ask you. I mean, she told me about pretty much everything she was working on, but I’m sure there’s stuff you know that I don’t. Like what about these lynx she thought she’d found, then said she didn’t?” Dana, Carla told him, had pretty much told her the same story. “But that’s just weird,” she said. “She was so excited about lynx, so she finally thinks there’s some in the valley and then she’s like, ‘Oh, never mind.’” Trip looked at Carla, who’d emerged from the bout of crying looking as beautiful as ever, and shrugged. “It doesn’t add up, but, well, I guess it’s not our job to figure it out. I wanted to go up to the lift motor room with
28 Ben Kirk from the Tramway Safety Board, but he said I was barred from the scene. I don’t think I’m a suspect or anything, but I put the friggin’ lift together so … it doesn’t look good for me right now.” “Oh, Trip!” He left out the little detail of getting fired. It didn’t seem too important at the moment, and he didn’t want to appear too pathetic. “And then I got a call from this woman at the sheriff’s office, a detective. She wants to talk to me later today. And I’ve got all these details to deal with – our parents are totally freaked out, of course, and they’re flying in tomorrow from Sao Paulo, cutting their vacation short. And Jesus Carla, how are you supposed to know how to deal with any of this stuff?” She reached over and took both his hands, looking him in the eyes. “I know Trip, I’m so sorry. But I do have some things I can do. I have a list here …” “Of course you do, you always have a list!” Trip said, forcing a smile. “So take a look when you get a sec. I’ve put down all the things I think need to be done and who should do them, and I’ve picked up a lot of it so you can, I dunno, chill.” “Thanks Carla. I don’t think I’ll be doing much chilling, but thanks.”
29 “So, my side of the story is this, Trip: Carla told me she was going up on the hill to check sed fences. She had this intern from the Watershed Council with her.” “Tom Welter, yeah,” Trip said. “Carla, I watched him die. Did you know him?” “No, god Trip. He was just up here for the summer, a student at CU in Boulder. Dana was laughing about him, said he was nervous about riding a chairlift for the first time.” Trip said: “Get out the irony board, huh? First and last. But Carla, that doesn’t make any sense. Sed fences? All the ground disturbance was done weeks ago, and Dana knows I wouldn’t let any of that shit into the creek. So that was bullshit. She was up there for something else.” “Or maybe she was just being nice to this kid, showing him how it’s done,” Carla said. “Who knows?” Sed fences were a kind of black fabric the Forest Service required to be installed around any sites where disturbed earth could potentially be released into any nearby water, and Trip had installed a few miles of them in his day. He could imagine Dana taking this intern up there to show him how it was done, but that didn’t explain why they’d need to go up the lift: no water up there to be sed-fenced. Carla shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense, unless of course there was something else she was going to show him, like lynx. Maybe someone new in town would seem safe, I don’t know.”
30 “And then there’s the other question I want answered: Who the hell started the lift for them?” “You can’t turn it on from the bottom?” “Hell no. You have to be up top and have a key to the lift shack and the motor room and start the motor from up there. She’d have asked me to do it, but she didn’t, so what the hell?” Carla sighed. “I don’t know, Trip, I just don’t know. Hopefully our Barney Fife cops around here can figure it out.” She picked a folder up from her desk. “And I know this is kind of a weird time, but I should let you know that Dana was a full-time employee, of course, and she had … things in place.” “Things in place? You mean, like a will?” “I don’t know about a will, but she had insurance, a couple of different kinds. And you’re the beneficiary.” Trip was amazed. Dana was as buttoned-down a researcher and activist as one could hope for, a woman who kept extensive and precise notes and knew state and federal regulations governing wildlife and the environment backwards and forwards. But when it came to her personal life, she was the kind of person who had nothing in the fridge, bounced checks all over the place and relied on Trip to remind her to do things like change the oil in her car or get her snow tires put on. “It’s like, a fair amount of money, Trip.”
31 “Oh, god, Carla. I can’t think about that now. It’s just weird.” She handed him the folder and the list. “Of course. Just, you know, check it out when you can, when the dust settles.” Trip took the papers and stood up. They hugged again, a shorter one this time, and promised each other to talk later in the day. “But Carla, I don’t think this dust is going to settle for a long time.”
It was a good 40-minute ride from Carla’s office in Avon to Trip’s home in McCoy. The hilly, winding road was as familiar to him as his tired old Subaru, and he was able to try to assemble some of the pieces of the situation in his mind as he drove. There were about 10 people who had keys to the motor room, assuming it wasn’t forced open. Whoever started the lift took off shortly afterward, which was odd unless, of course, that person was responsible for messing with the bullwheel brake. “The saboteur,” Tom said aloud, testing the word out on his tongue. “Messing with my fucking lift. Killing my sister … and the other guy. Why the hell would someone do that?” Trip lightly hit the steering wheel in frustration, realizing once again that his capacity to display anger was pathetic. It was one of the reasons Katie had cited for
32 wanting a divorce: He had the emotional capacity of a shark. He didn’t show anger, she’d said, or any other emotion. “It’s all in here,” Trip had told her at the time, pointing at his chest. “You just don’t know how to access it, is all.” When he pulled up in front of his cabin, there was an Eagle County Sheriff’s Office SUV sitting in his driveway. A woman sat behind the wheel, and she got out of the truck as Trip approached. “You must be from the sheriff’s office,” Trip said. “I am,” said Jill. “Mind if I come in?” The cabin Trip was living in was the kind of one-room hermitage many recently divorced guys gravitate to. It was neat and clean, but beyond rustic to the point of being rundown. There was only the bed and two kitchen chairs to sit on, and Trip motioned the sheriff’s office lady to one of them. She sure as hell didn’t look like a cop. She was dressed like a local, in blue jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. She probably had 10 years on Trip, but she was a nice-looking woman with an easy, kind face and simply cut brown hair. Jill held out her hand. “Detective Sergeant Jill Stewart, Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.” Compared to other body parts, the hand is a poor communicator of emotion and character. Trip always thought people put too much stock in the tenor of a handshake, and
33 he wasn’t a big fan of shaking hands with women in general. It seemed too formal, too macho. A hug in this situation was obviously out of the question, but he would have been fine with no handshake at all. But there it was, the outstretched hand. He took it, clasped it briefly and looked Jill in the eye. “Thanks for coming, Detective. I hope you can find out who did this.” They sat down. “What makes you think someone did anything?” Jill asked. “Wait, before you answer, is it OK if I record this?” Trip shrugged and she pulled out an iPod with a little microphone attached. She pushed a button and said “OK, shoot.” “Because that lift was in perfect working order when I left it on Wednesday,” Trip said. “Ben Kirk, the Tramway rep, told me about the bullwheel dog coming loose. Like someone tried to make it look like an accident, or negligence. I’m sorry, but that’s just bullshit.” Jill had him start at the beginning, his work with Vail Resorts, his knowledge of lifts and lift construction, how he’d become involved with Tony Bing’s company. “So you were essentially laid off for the summer from Vail Resorts, by Arn Johnson, so you were moonlighting, kind of?” Jill said.
34 “I guess you could say that, but I wouldn’t want Arn to know,” Trip said, shifting in his chair. “But I guess that cat’s out of the bag now.” Trip admired the way the detective methodically moved her questions in such a logical order. Slowly, patiently, she was working her way up to the big event, sketching a portrait of Trip, the lift, his sister, the whole situation. It occurred to him to offer her a drink. “Oh, just water would be great, thanks,” she said. “Or I can make coffee. It’s no problem.” She hesitated. This was about the time of day she’d hit Loaded Joe’s for a latte. “Coffee it is,” Trip said, getting up to make it. “Intuitive,” Jill said, pausing the recording. “You’d make a good husband.” “Apparently not,” Trip said, flashing a brief smile. “My wife left me about a year ago. Something about being emotionally unavailable.” “Well, all guys have that problem,” Jill said. “The woman’s job is to tease it out of them without pissing them off.” Trip gave her a penetrating look. “Intuitive. You’d make a good wife.” “I did. I just had the misfortune to marry someone who didn’t appreciate all that goodness.” They laughed, and both felt the ground shift in their conversation. This was what they’d taught her at the
35 detective academy interview course to look for: the icebreaker moment when the interview subject feels he’s in a conversation and not an interrogation. I can do this Jill told herself, while mentally chiding herself for letting her gaze linger on Trip’s perfect, Carhartt-clad backside as he stood at the counter. “What do you take in your coffee?” “In a perfect world, agave nectar and vanilla soy milk,” Jill said. “Got it,” Trip said, reaching into the cabinet. “You’re kidding!” “Nope. I don’t like sugar or the fake stuff, so someone suggested this agave stuff to me, and I’ve been using it for years. And I’m lactose intolerant, so I’ve always been a soy milk guy. Just don’t tell the guys on the hill.” “Perfect. Thanks so much.” He set the coffee in front of her and sat down with his own cup. “Where were we?” Trip gave her the list of people who had a key to the lift shack and motor room: Himself, AirLane, Petey Moore, six or seven guys on the lift construction crew and the mountain manager, Dale Beck. “And I’m pretty sure Tony Bing has one that I gave him, although he’s only come up there once that I know of,” Trip said. “When was that?”
36 “Two weeks or so ago, when we got Number 7 turning and ready for passengers.” “What do you know about Tony Bing?” Trip leaned back and sighed. “He’s one of these guys with money from out of state. Texas, Dallas area, strip malls and shopping centers was what he was doing. Then he was in a big, messy divorce – he told me all of this at my interview, and believe me, he did all the talking. So he decided to take some of his money and move to Colorado, do something different. He found the land over there by Edwards and bought it. He read a story in a magazine, he told me, about how popular terrain parks are getting, and he figured he didn’t need to build another Vail; a couple of lifts and some rails and kickers and he’d be in the ski business. It’s not a bad plan, if you ask me.” “And he’s building a bunch of homes too, right?” “Yeah, I guess. I don’t have anything to do with that, and I think he’s a year or two away from breaking ground. Said he wanted to get some money coming in from the terrain park first, and generate interest in the area. Jack up the value of the real estate, I guess, if you’ve got a popular little terrain park going.” “Mr. Bellmore …” Jill began. “Trip, please,” he said. “OK, Trip: I have some unpleasant questions I have to ask. I have to ask them.” “I understand. Shoot.”
37 “Did you knowingly do anything to that chairlift that would cause it to malfunction or crash?” “No. Absolutely not.” “Did you have any idea your sister was going to be on it, with Mr. Welter, yesterday morning?” “No, no idea.” A tear appeared in the corner of Trip’s eye. Jill pressed forward. “Did your sister, did she say anything when you found her?” “No. She was already dead.” “Did your sister have any enemies that you know of, people who would want her dead?” “She pissed people off, especially the Powers That Be around here,” Trip said. “But resort folks and developers, shit, they’re used to tree huggers like Dana hassling them. They know how to work around ‘em. In most cases, it’s actually pretty friendly. I mean, it’s a small town, in a lot of ways. Small county, I guess you’d say.” “So no enemies that you knew of?” “No, none. Dana was a real sweetheart, everyone loved her.” Trip stood up and tore a paper towel off the holder and wiped his eyes. “If you need a moment …” Jill said. “No, let’s keep going,” Trip said. “It’s never going to be easy.”
38 “Any boyfriends, ex-husbands, who might be nursing a grudge?” “Dana was gay, for one. She hadn’t had a girlfriend in a while, like two or three years. And she was always friends with the ones she broke up with.” Even so, Jill asked for names, and Trip provided them. One of them was one of the local prosecutors, which caused her eyebrows to go up. But Trip was crying freely now, and her training told her it was time to end the session. She wanted to hug the poor guy, but pushed that thought away and remembered that he was still a suspect, however unlikely. She stood up. “Trip, that’s enough for now. I’m so sorry for your loss, I know this is a terrible time for you and your family.” He grabbed another paper towel and blew his nose while motioning for her to sit down. “Hang on Jill. I’ve got to tell you about the lynx.”
39 Chapter 3 In October of 1998, Chelsea Gerlach, Kevin Tubbs, Josephine Overaker and Stanislas Meyerhoff were led by William Rodgers in an arson attack on Vail Mountain. The group, which called itself the “Earth Liberation Front” and which was promptly dubbed “ecoterrorists” in the media, set fire to the Two Elk Lodge perched on the edge of soon-to-beopened bowl skiing in Blue Sky Basin. Their stated reason was to speak out for the lynx, the habitat of which they assumed would be compromised by the ski area expansion. Ten years later, there still weren’t any lynx in Blue Sky Basin (or any sign of them). Gerlach, Tubbs, Overaker and Meyerhoff were doing time in federal penitentiaries and Rodgers was dead – a jailhouse suicide. Vail took the insurance money and promptly rebuilt Two Elk bigger and better, and 9-11 made ecoterrorism – or any other kind, for that matter – unfashionable. But despite the Earth Liberation Front’s failure to eliminate skiing and development in Blue Sky Basin, they did underscore the problem lynx presented to developers. The diminutive bobcat with the signature pointy ears was reintroduced to Colorado in 1999, with more cats added every year to the recovery area in the San Juan Mountains in the southern portion of the state. Cute, wild and somewhat mythical given their sparse numbers and endangered species status, the Canada lynx is an atomic bomb to developers: Discover lynx habitat on the property you want to develop
40 into second homes, clubhouses and golf courses and you’re project may well be doomed. Seeing one may be tantamount to a unicorn sighting for someone like Dana Bellmore, but for the Tony Bings of the world, they were only trouble. But so far, nothing. If any of the cats had made it this far north, they were keeping well hidden. After Trip told Jill about Dana’s fascination with lynx and occasional false alarms about their presence locally, the detective added Tony Bing to her short list of suspects. Trip also suggested she add Mandelbaum to her list. That developer, Trip told her, had a more apparent problem than an elusive feline: Actual, verified pollution from an old zinc mine on his Alpen Cliff Meadows property that was still leaching into the Eagle River. “Dana was on his ass about it, along with the Watershed Council folks and the EPA,” he told her. “Dana said Mandelbaum once told her he wished she’d be abducted by aliens.” At that precise moment, as his situation and personality were being discussed by a lift mechanic and a detective, Mitchell K. Mandelbaum was relaxing on a tiny atoll in the Pacific. Mandelbaum – who never used his first name – was delightfully wealthy, but he had friends that were even more so: the kind of people who owned tiny atolls so private that they didn’t have names or appear on maps. On his laptop, Mandelbaum was scowling at a PDF terrain and elevation model of his property in Colorado. The map
41 showed all the water sources and tributaries that led into the Eagle River, as well as the locations of the several zinc mines that were causing him so much grief. “Who the fuck uses zinc, anyway?” Mandelbaum said, addressing the question to the nude Thai prostitute sunbathing next to him. She just looked up and smiled. And he thought he’d been so smart, buying the property just adjacent to the Superfund site where they’d cleaned up much of the toxic runoff from the old Eagle Mine. Bobby Ginn, a rival developer also from Florida, had bought the lion’s share of the available property after he was assured he’d not be liable for any other pollution problems. In two locations in Florida and one on the Georgia coast, Mandelbaum had come in after Ginn and built what he considered to be a better resort. When he heard about Ginn’s Colorado project, he couldn’t resist doing it again. But now, this. “Non-point-source pollution” they called it, meaning it was hard to know exactly where the shit was coming from. But the water engineers from the EPA had identified it as most certainly coming from somewhere on Mandelbaum’s property, and his own engineers had confirmed it. And then there was some stupid hearing they wanted him at. “Well, sweetheart,” he said, closing his laptop and throwing off a towel to reveal his semi-rigid dick, “There ain’t nothing for it but to throw some more lawyers at the
42 situation … and enjoy another blowjob before I jet outta here.” At the last word, the Thai whore came to life. She tilted her head at him and eyed his rising tide. “Blowjob?” Mandelbaum nodded and she got to work as he contemplated the necessity of leaving this place for yet another trip to Colorado. “If those dickheads I left in charge can’t figure it out, sister, looks like ol’ daddy Mandelbaum is going to have to ride to the rescue.”
After Jill left his house, Trip strapped a water bottle on his hip and walked into the woods behind his house. There wasn’t much in the way of trails back there, but it wasn’t too hard to pick a path through the scrub and sage and find a way among the pine trees that were either dead, dying or too scrawny to have attracted the beetles in the first place. As he walked along, he tried to identify things he saw. He knew what sage looked like, but had no clue what the other myriad different plants and bushes were. He saw a couple of delicate red-flowered stalks he remembered Dana telling him were called Indian paintbrush. And while he knew the lodgepole pine and aspen, the other varieties of evergreen meant nothing to him. Were they fir, spruce, other kinds of pine, what? “I’ve lived here 22 years, I should know this stuff,” he thought to himself, settling on a rock about 200 yards from
43 his house. He resolved to look in the Colorado Mountain College catalog that had come in the mail to see if there was a course on learning local nature stuff. He then remembered the times Dana had tried to point these things out to him, and he’d just laughed it off as ignorance he relished. “Knowing all the names would taint the experience for me,” he told her. “All these plants and critters, they don’t know they have names, do they? They just are, and that’s how I like to enjoy them.” Trip liked trees as much as the next guy. The strong perfume of the pine forest, mixed with the underlying layer of sage, was the background scent of his workaday life, and he loved it. As he sat on his rock, he breathed it in and thought of Dana and let more tears come. Better this way, he thought, with no one around to make him feel self-conscious about it. Not that he thought men shouldn’t cry, but if it could be done discretely, so much the better. Katie, his ex, had left a message on his cell, as had several other friends. But in times like this, there was only one person Trip had ever turned to, and that was Dana. The realization kicked his weeping into more active sobbing – something he hadn’t done or felt since childhood. He thought about standing on the rock and yelling something. Like “NO!” or “Why her? Why!” But he continued to sit there, dismissing the Hollywood gesture as out of character for Trip Bellmore. And when the
44 tears came fewer and farther between, his thoughts turned again to the issue of identity: Who did this, and why? The concept of revenge and retribution, justice and punishment, were moving to a central spot in his mind, and it occurred to him that, were he to be confronted with the person he was sure was Dana’s killer, he would have no problem killing that man. For it had to be a man. Women don’t run around sabotaging chairlifts and killing people. That should eliminate about 40 percent of the county’s population, he figured. Thinking of people caused him to pull out his cell and flip through the numbers of the people who’d called. Arn over at Vail, a couple of numbers he didn’t recognize, Katie and also a few family members: an uncle he barely knew in Florida, a cousin in California. But still no AirLane. More than anyone, Trip wanted to talk to the one person who knew the No. 7 lift as well as he. But it was July 3, and the McNair family liked to disappear into the backcountry whenever they could – places where no cell service reached. They had an old pop-up camper AirLane had reinforced to withstand rough roads, and it was, he said, the only thing that seemed to keep his marriage together. “June, she just likes me to be around 100 percent with the kids,” he’d told Trip. “I leave the cell phone and the bar behind, she gets all lovey-dovey on me. Ain’t so much of a whiney thing, neither.”
45 So, it might be Sunday, three days away, before he could talk to AirLane. He also knew he had to return one of several calls he’d received from his Vail Resorts boss, Arn. No doubt he’d heard about the lift incident and Trip’s involvement. He wouldn’t be happy to hear about it, although Dana’s death would hopefully temper a lot of whatever anger or corporate uptightness Arn was running off of. There were also a couple of messages from Tony Bing, but since he’d just fired him, Trip figured that could wait – although he could imagine what the greedy bastard wanted, now that he’d satisfied his outsized ego by firing Trip. He’d want to know why the lift he’d just spent 200 grand putting in was a twisted and worthless scrap of metal now. The cheap bastard, thought Trip. With all the money Bing had, he could have afforded a couple of new lifts instead of these tired old beaters. Maybe none of this would even have happened with a new Poma or Doppelmyr – both of which now had much more effective and fool-proof anti-rollback systems on them. He still couldn’t believe the destruction around the old lift. Like all lift mechanics, he knew the danger of a rollback, but it had always seemed such a remote possibility. The only instance of a lift rolling back like this Trip knew of was a deliberate exercise in destructive testing done at the Winter Park Ski area in the early 1990s. When the resort decommissioned the old Eskimo lift, they loaded up all the chairs with cinder blocks and let the lift
46 roll back to see what would happen. They’d made a film, which was now online for anyone to see. He made a note to mention it to the detective. Even more amazing than the damage to the lift was what it had done to his sister. He closed his eyes against the image of the shattered body he’d had to get down from the tree. The fact of mortality, all that being turned into nothingness so suddenly, it was hard to grasp. We stuff so much stuff into a body over the course of a lifetime, he thought. All the memories, the physical and emotional experiences, the shit we say, the stuff we do, the people we know, the money we spent, the food and drink we consumed. What did it all mean now? And in Dana’s case, she hadn’t even left any children behind to … to what? Carry on her legacy? His sister didn’t have a problem with kids, but she had believed that adding more people to what she called an already overburdened planet made no sense. Maybe her legacy was a lighter footprint, then. But it would live on in their memories and in some of her actions. There were some nice footbridges spanning important wetlands over in Edwards, and the small nature center in Minturn Dana had worked tirelessly to fund and create. Maybe Carla would see to it that some kind of plaque went up. Trip stood up and said: “A plaque” in a flat, tired voice. Then he walked back to his house, got in his car and drove down the road a few miles to a spot where he got cell phone reception. It was time he talked to his bosses. Maybe Tony
47 had come to his senses and realized he’d never get a lift in for the next season without Trip.
She’d done her best to play the stoic professional when Trip had visited her, and she’d had to endure an entire day of official pronouncements, questions and media calls. Now, Carla Odekirk was sitting on her deck allowing grief to wash over her. Her golden was next to her, and Scout looked up at her frequently with eyes that seemed wide with sympathy. “You know, don’t you Scout?” Carla said. For answer, Scout licked her hand. The dry hand was holding a snapshot of her and Dana from a river cleanup a few years back. She regarded the two smiling women in the photograph and imagined what might have been, if only. Dana’s dream, as related to Carla, was to save enough money to adopt a kid of her own from China or Russia — or to find a suitable donor and have a child herself. With or without a partner, Dana wanted more than anything to be a mom. “You’d have been a great mom, Dana,” Carla said to the picture. “And if I ever had a daughter, Dana will most certainly be her name.” She turned back to Scout. “How long is that going to take, Scout? I don’t even have a boyfriend. And I’m no Dana: Kids’ve got to come with a dad. No way I’m doing it alone.” Scout smiled and wiggled like she did whenever Carla talked to her directly like this. She insinuated her head
48 under Carla’s arm and got the slow, affectionate stroke she was looking for as Carla leaned back and sighed. “But I tell you, Scout, that Trip … He makes my insides feel funny. What do you make of that, huh?” It was true. She’d never given Trip much thought since he’d been married most of the time she’d known him, and she hadn’t seen him much since his divorce. But he was about her age and she knew what a good guy he was from Dana. Sisters were biased, of course, but if even half of what she said about Trip were true, the guy should be able to go a couple of yards, at least, walking on water. On the purely visceral level, there was nothing not to like. According to Dana, he’d beaten the twin demons of alcohol and tobacco years ago, and though he was a blue-collar guy who worked with his hands, he was a tireless autodidact, a constant reader who dreamed of going back to school for a master’s degree. Carla reached for another photo and held it up to her face. This one showed just Trip and another volunteer whose name escaped her. Trip was holding a chainsaw and smiling broadly for the camera. That had been about two years ago, and Carla remembered telling Trip that, if it hadn’t been for him on that trail reconstruction, they’d never have gotten it done. Her eyes passed slowly over the photo: strong chin, wild shock of thick, black hair, arms and chest taut against an ugly orange Broncos T-shirt, strong legs clad in the signature Carhartt tan denim Trip was rarely seen without.
49 She threw the photo down and addressed Scout again. “Oh, this is ridiculous! Dana’s dead and all I can think about is my maternal alarm clock. It’s almost the Fourth of July, Scout. You ready for our hike?” “Hike” was a word that caused Scout to act in Pavlovian fervor. She ran inside and retrieved her leash off the wall, then came back out and turned happy circles on the deck as Carla laced up her boots and strapped on a light water pack. Scout hated fireworks above all things, so it was a custom for them to hike far into the backcountry to get away from the pyrotechnics being set off all around their tiny townhome in Avon. It was nothing like the Long Island suburb she’d grown up in – which sounded like a war zone for much of early July – but it only took a few loud bangs to send Scout shivering in fear for hours on end. In the evening, when the big fireworks went off over Beaver Creek, Carla would drive Scout up to the top of Vail Pass for a night walk far from the noises that tormented the poor dog. She planned to leave her cell phone behind, but it rang as she and Scout were heading out the door. An unfamiliar number; she answered it. “Hey,” said a short, annoyed voice. “This is Tony Bing. I don’t mean to sound rude at a time like this, but what the hell was your employee doing up on my mountain, getting herself killed with that other guy.” A foreign-feeling chill zipped through her body, and a voice foreign to Carla answered him.
50 “Well, Mr. Bing, I mean to be rude and what the hell was your chairlift doing killing people when it was supposed to be all ready and safe? I’m sure Dana was up there with good reason, and I wonder if there’s something up there she knew about that was going to slow down your precious development. Believe me, I’m going to look into it, and if there’s smoke or fire of any kind up there, I will honor Dana’s memory by bringing it into the open and then burning your ass if you’re building when you shouldn’t be – not to mention running unsafe equipment on Forest Service land.” “Listen, you stupid bitch …” Tony began, but Carla had already hung up and tossed the phone on the counter. “Come on Scout, let’s get the hell out of here.” Her hands were shaking as she drove her Prius east on I-70 towards Minturn. How could that Tony Bing character call her up and accost her like that the same day Dana was killed on his mountain? The horror of Dana’s death was now compounded by the sinking realization that this was going to be a big deal of some sort. It wasn’t like she’d just died; she’d been killed, violently, and set off something big behind her. In some ways it was a fitting end for a woman who was just about impervious to any kind of scathing rhetoric that came her way. She used to just laugh at the letters in the Vail Daily that singled her out as a “clueless tree hugger” or a “liberal moron.” And after a decade or so fighting the fight herself, Carla was pretty inured to the name-calling
51 and sordid tactics the other side used to score points in the court of public opinion. But Bing’s words cut deep. What if he was right in some way? Was it Carla’s fault that Dana was up there in the first place? She hadn’t even known about the site visit, but as the executive director, she was responsible for whatever her employees (all two of them) were up to. And could Bing sue the Coalition for trespassing or something stupid, just to deflect blame from himself? Technically, Dana and Tom had been on U.S. Forest Service land, but he had a lease to operate the ski area on it, so what would the law have to say about that? As she turned off the interstate onto Highway 24 to Minturn, Carla noticed the same vehicle that had been behind her since Avon following her around the curving off-ramp. Was she being followed? Quickly, she signaled and turned into the parking lot of the Forest Service ranger district office. The other vehicle, a silver Lexus SUV, continued past. Carla looked at Scout’s curious look. “Don’t worry sweetie. Mommy’s just paranoid now. On top of everything else.”
Anthony Carmine DiBenedetto changed his name after his sophomore year in college, when he transferred from Queen’s College to Texas A&M. Where he’d grown up in Brooklyn, a “guinea” name like his attracted little attention, but he
52 figured it would be an unnecessary burden in a place like Texas. He picked “Bing” out of the air, mostly, thinking it had a nice-sounding pop with “Tony.” There was also just that hint of Italian, if one thought of “bada-bing.” People, he reasoned, would never forget a name like that. Tony ended up in Texas because of his uncle Frank, who’d made his way to Texas a decade earlier and who worked in the Aggies’ provost’s office doing what Tony never quite figured out. But Uncle Frank had helped grease the wheels for Tony to get into the school with a pretty decent scholarship. He did OK in business school, getting grades that were just enough to let him go to the next level. Tony called it “getting my ticket punched,” and viewed education as a sort of bureaucratic rung he had to climb to reach his next goal. He had fun in College Station, drinking his face off, banging a few girls along the way and emerging with a couple of what would turn out to be life-long friends. And though he professed to despise Texas and everything it stood for, he never left it – at least not until this opportunity in Colorado arose. Tony Bing hadn’t planned on acquiring the title of “stripmall developer,” but it’s what he turned out to be. With one of his college buddies, whose wealthy family bankrolled them, he got in on the ground floor with a development outside Houston. He rolled his impressive share of the profits into another project just a mile or so from the first. By the time he was 25, he had become a millionaire –
53 on paper, at least – and he was amazed at how simple it had been. “Seed money” became his core belief: that if a man had that, a start, he could do anything. Over the next two decades, Tony Bing was able to take that seed money and translate it into an income of several million dollars a year. He married a woman named Christy Sabine, who took some of her own seed money from Tony’s pile and started her own real estate agency. Before long, she stopped asking him for money and rode a hot market all the way up to the 2006 housing crash. Christy had offices in seven different locations, and she closed them one by one while laying off staff with apologetic gift baskets and two-week severance checks. Tony’s business had dried up to the point where he spent his days on the golf course, lamenting the state of the housing and development industry with others in the same boat. And when he drove home one evening and happened to pass a motel with Christy’s Mercedes parked out front, it was a simple matter of reading Business Week for an hour or so until he saw her emerge with another man – a guy 20 years her junior who looked, laughably, Tony thought, like a tennis instructor. Tony wasn’t jealous; he and Christy had ceased having sex together years ago, and he was no slouch in the mistress department. But this was, to his knowledge, Christy’s first liaison, and all Tony could think of were the liquid assets that could be dished up in divorce fallout: about $17
54 million in cash and securities, another $8-$10 million in real estate (including three homes in Texas, one in Vail and another in Florida) and a very nice boat where Tony had, at last count, bedded 47 different women (or 21, if he didn’t count the professionals). As Tony wondered if he should move to hide or protect things, Christy moved quicker after he confronted her with his knowledge. Investing everything she had left in a phalanx of lawyers, she was able to strip the strip-mall king of almost everything he owned, largely based on the claim that he couldn’t have done it without her. It reminded Tony of what it was like as a kid to get your ass beaten in the school yard by a much bigger kid. It had happened to him twice, and he remembered, 40-some-odd years later, the sensation of surrender and inevitability that accompanied the beatings. Once it seemed apparent that there was no fighting back, once surrender had been presented as an option and then accepted in his mind, there was then only the inevitability that, no matter how much it hurt, an ending would come eventually. And then he would move on. It must have had something to do with his love for Christy, he told himself. His own lawyers urged him to fight her on the same grounds, to hit below the belt as she was doing to him. But it was more amusing for Tony to play the game as a sort of disinterested victim, and he watched intrigued as the woman he’d shared a bed with for 27 years, and with whom he’d had three children, systematically
55 destroyed the little empire they’d built together and moved almost all the pieces to her side of the board. When it was all over, he retreated to the one thing he’d insisted on keeping: The small, 1970s-vintage condo he’d bought in Vail on a whim following their honeymoon together there. He spent a lot of time skiing while also working part-time in a local real estate office to get a feel for the market. All the while, he kept an eye out for more seed money. On July 3, Tony Bing was informed of the accident up at the terrain park by Putty Du, who floated into his office and gazed out the window while relating what details he knew to a shocked Tony. Putty Du was the price of seed money: the ethnically and sexually ambiguous go-between he’d had to accept as part of a deal with a Chinese sporting goods family he’d gotten his money from. As was nearly always the case with anything important, Putty Du had already spoken to the family and had a message ready. “Fix it quick before it interrupts the opening this ski season.” His voice, as always, a linguistically vague amalgam, nearly whispered. Like a cross between a resident of French Polynesia and an Apache reservation, it had the effect of pissing Tony off no matter what Putty said. And this was the guy he had to spend most of his waking hours around. It was enough to make him miss the groping, shrill Christy.
56 Tony grabbed for a phone and addressed Putty Du while he dialed. “Of course I’m going to fix it, you fucking gook goofball! What the hell you think … Hello, Trip? Goddamnit, answer your phone OK? I need to talk to you. What the hell happened up there? Call me NOW!” “Let’s go, Putty. You drive, I’m too freaked out. Two people killed up there, I mean, holy shit!” Putty Du agreed to the arrangement with a slight incline of his head and a sideways look at Tony. The fat, stupid American hated to have anyone but himself drive the black Escalade with the “Screamin’ Eagle Terrain Park” sticker on the door. He told Putty Du that he drove like “a thousand drunk pussies,” and once even reached his foot over to give the vehicle more gas as Putty Du attempted to pass a tractor. He was no less patient on this morning. “C’mon Pussy, I mean Putty! Put your foot into it fer chrissakes. There’s people dead up there!” They were just loading the broken bodies of Dana Bellmore and Tom Welter into ambulances when Putty Du slid the Escalade into a spot behind the Eagle County Water Rescue truck. “What the hell do they need these guys for?” Tony said, opening his door before they’d come to a complete stop and hopping to the ground.
57 To himself, Putty Du thought: “Everyone wants to come to the party,” while to Tony he leveled an unnoticed look that said: “I’ve known slime molds more appealing than you.” The first member of the Screamin’ Eagle Terrain Park Tony encountered was Petey Moore, the “hotshot” Trip has insisted on hiring from some closed-down ski area in Idaho and whose driveway, so far as Tony could tell, didn’t make it all the way to the road. “What happened, Petey?” Tony said, trying to assume a voice of calm, control and understanding and resisting the urge to grab the man by his collar and shake. “Dunno chief,” said Petey. “I’m off today, actually.” “Then what the hell are you doing up here?” “Dunno. Trip called me. He’s over there.” Tony turned and saw Trip sitting on a rock, apparently staring into space. The developer’s short legs propelled him in that direction, and he waved his arms in the air for good measure, to let Trip know he was coming. He had to step over mangled chairs and other unidentifiable pieces of chairlift, and his mind was mentally trying to calculate what this was going to cost to repair. He was still 10 feet from Trip when Ted Cunningham, stepped in front of him and grabbed his arm. “Hey, what the hell?!” Tony said, instinctively trying to wrench free. “Mr. Bing, hold on just a second. I’m Ted Cunningham, the undersheriff.”
58 “Congratulations. Now let me go.” Ted didn’t relax his grip on Tony’s arm but spoke close to his ear in a low, even voice. “I understand you’re upset at what happened here. But I just need you to know that one of the people killed here was Dana Bellmore, Trip’s sister. So before you go tearing him a new one about whatever, just keep in mind the man just lost his sister. And she was pretty, well, pretty beat up and mangled. Found her up in a tree.” The man let go of his arm and Tony said “fine.” He approached Trip more slowly now, not sure how to properly heap blame and derision on an employee who’d just lost a family member. “Trip?” Trip, his face a picture of gloom, looked up at Tony. “Oh, hey Tony. What a mess, huh?” For a split second, Tony contemplated sitting on the rock next to Trip, then decided that was too, too something. He settled for standing in front of Trip with his hands in his pockets. That didn’t feel right, either, but he was determined to wait a few moments before taking his arms out of his pockets and then … he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with them. In a barely audible voice, Trip gave him the details of what he knew about the accident. “Someone messed with it, Tony. Someone wanted it to crash. That much I know.”
59 “Right,” Tony said. “OK.” “And Tony? I know you’re wondering so I’ll just tell you outright: This lift is fucked, completely beyond repair. We have to rip the whole thing out, towers and all, and put in a new lift. Or a new used one, if we can find one. We’ll have to act fast if we want something in place by December. And even then … I don’t know. It’ll be tight. It’s not like chairlifts are just, you know, sitting on a shelf somewhere.” Tony nodded and felt what he now knew as the “money pit” take hold of his insides. It was a relatively new phenomenon that started to manifest itself a few years ago, when Christy calmly informed him she was planning to leave and “twist off his financial balls.” Now, the money pit was linked directly to an extremely unpleasant task Tony knew now lay before him: He was going to have to ask the Chinks for more money. And, knowing the first thing they were going to ask, he put a hand on Trip’s shoulder and said: “I’m really sorry about your sister, Trip. And I know this is a bad time but … You’re fired.” Trip looked up, his eyes simply moving to a deeper shade of grief. Tony gave the undersheriff his card and told him to call with news or questions. “You should really stick around, Mr. Bing,” Cunningham said. “The detective will be here shortly, and I’m sure she’ll want to talk to you.” Tony kept walking.
60 “I’ve got to go, just have her call me.” And then he and Putty Du got into the Escalade and slowly bumped back down the road. “I’m going too, Ted,” Trip said. “Trip …” “I can talk to her tomorrow, just not today.” Trip fished a card out of his wallet and handed it to the undersherrif. “My cell’s on there. Have her call. Petey can answer any questions about the lift anyway.”
The Chinks had a palatial home up in Beaver Creek. Putty Du texted ahead and received confirmation that they would see them. He found himself actually feeling sorry for the fat Texan, who he knew was in for an unpleasant time of it. On the other hand, Putty Du loved to visit the Zhengwu home, which was 5,300 square feet of sumptuous awfulness. The Zhengwu family had purchased the home from an Oklahoma oilman who’d had the place tricked out with every imaginable excess that could be thrown at a mountain home. There were two elevators, a five-car garage, and a colossal, cherubstudded indoor fountain that never worked quite right. While Tony went into to his meeting with the family, Putty Du stood and watched the fountain gurgle. Jets of water would occasionally misfire, randomly shooting streams at the marble wall with a salaciousness that always caused Putty Du to grin.
61 “Why don’t we fix it, right?” The voice seemed to appear out of nowhere, but Putty Du knew it to belong to Sian Dang, the Zhengwu majordomo and problem solver who’d helped Putty Du get his job overseeing Tony. Putty Du turned and felt his chest tighten as he took in Sian. From the severely straight cut of the jet-black hair that went halfway down her back to the tiny topsiders on her feet and the crisp, blue denim of her jeans, he could never find anything on Sian that strayed far from perfect. She was a Beijing girl through and through, but she spoke perfect, unaccented English from her years at Pepperdine, and she dressed with informal, American ease. No American girl, Putty Du thought, could ever make blue jeans and a checked blouse look so alluring. “Hello Sian. Yes, the house is immaculate, yet you allow these …” “Ejaculations?” “If you must.” “We are all here because of one,” she said, gliding up to stand next to him. “The spurt of life, and most of the times wildly unpredictable. Who can see which act of coitus will result in a person?” “Some say ‘god,’” Putty Du said, looking into her greenflecked brown eyes. She nodded. “But what do you say, Mr. Putty Du?”
62 “Who cares? I, like you, am but a servant to greater masters who hold my fate in their hands. And I am no closer to fathering a child than that statue over there. My ejaculations are inconsequential.” Sian tipped her head back and let out a wonderful, trilling laugh. She started to say something to Putty Du just as a jet of water from the misfiring fountain caught her square in the chest. “You see?” she said, laughing anew. “It’s unpredictable. I was standing in a place that I was certain was safe from the water, yet I was hit just as I was about to make an inappropriate comment to you!” The water had doused her shirt enough to reveal the lace of her brassiere underneath, a brief glimpse beyond the well-manicured exterior that, Putty Du thought, made her all the more beautiful. She caught his gaze and turned to leave the room. “I must change, Mr. Putty Du. But think about that.” She disappeared through a door, then popped her head back out. “And the fountain, Putty? It was like that, but it was the elder Mr. Zhengwu’s idea to leave it be. He loves a good metaphor.” Putty Du watched the door close behind her and sighed. Considering the fountain again, he wondered when and where the next spurt would occur. A watcher might have been almost frightened by his face, which was looking at the fountain
63 with the kind of cold calculation a killer might use before thrusting the knife in. Putty Du’s cheeks were deeply scarred from the acne he suffered through as a teenager, and all the way into his 20s. He would otherwise have a perfect face, as he sometimes told himself looking in the mirror. There, he saw an ideally formed nose with no bumps of any kind discernible in profile. His was a strong, noble chin matched against a high forehead half hidden by his straight, dark hair. His eyes were dark, yet contained a hint of deepest blue that conspired to give him a slightly sinister look. A gift from the American GI father he never met, the eyes were his constant reminder that he wasn’t a true Vietnamese, not a true Asian. Tainted or blessed by the Yankee blood he couldn’t decide. Certainly in some cases saying he had an American father opened doors, and there was no denying he was of mixed race, a thang Tay so far as his
fellow Asians were concerned. It usually didn’t take him long to see the condescension in the way they looked at him. The part-thang Tay lackey serving the meathead Texan. But not Sian. She was playing the same game, in some ways, from the other side of the fence. Putty Du was wearing dark gabardine trousers and a grayblack Rayon shirt with a barely detectable palm tree pattern. On his feet were a pair of Italian loafers he’d picked up in San Francisco, and his left wrist sported an understated Tag-Heuer – nothing like the garish, blocky Rolex Tony wore. He was also wearing a pair of tight Jockey
64 briefs, plain white. No matter how subtle or loose his outside clothes were, wearing the briefs always gave him a feeling of immediacy, like he was being urged on by the seat of his pants. They also were a nod to his father, since his mother had told him that’s the kind of underwear the big American wore when she knew him all those years ago. Both the men and the women Putty Du slept with were surprised at his choice, and on several occasions he’d been counseled on the superiority of boxers – even receiving several nice pair as gifts. Eyeing the fountain with equal parts fascination and contempt, Putty Du thought of his comfortable, dry and expensive clothing and decided it wasn’t worth it. He moved down the hallway, expecting to meet Sian after she’d finished changing her shirt. Finding his way into a small study, he sat in a supremely ugly chair fashioned from aspen wood and began reading a brand-new copy of the China Business Review. He shut out the sound of raised voices coming from down the hall and devoted his attention to a feature on the yuan.
Tony Bing’s copious rear end was occupying only about 18 inches of the fabric that covered the very edge of the seat that sat facing the Zhengwu patriarch, who was known in America as, simply, “Bob.” Standing in the corner of the room mostly looking out the window and appearing to wish he was elsewhere, was the scion of the Zhengwu clan, a 27-year-
65 old cliché who went by the American name “Skippy Pong.” Bob, Tony knew, regarded Skippy as mostly useless, except when they were trying to have a more in-depth conversation and the younger man was able to help translating for his father. Tony was trying to explain what he knew about the chairlift accident – which wasn’t much, since he’d just about fled the scene after canning Trip on the spot. He was glad he had now, though, since that bit of information was the only thing he told the old man that seemed to please him. Tony was used to being on the other side of the desk doing the yelling, and the only thing that kept him from speaking in kind was the money pit: No matter how pissed off he got, he told himself going in, he had to kiss the old man’s ass and get the hell out of there with a check. He could leave his dignity behind for the moment. Now, Bob was standing up, pacing behind Tony’s chair and speaking rapidly to Skippy in Mandarin. Skippy turned to Tony with a crooked smile. “This man is a complete and utter idiot. I think we may have made a big mistake. Tell him …” But Skippy was interrupted by Bob, who took two quick steps and slapped his son hard in the face. More fast Chinese followed until Skippy, rubbing his cheek but looking as bored as ever, slipped from the room. “My apologies, Mr. Bing. My son is …” Tony stood and held out his hand.
66 “Don’t worry about it, Bob. I’m truly sorry about all this, and I understand you need to think about things so …” Bob shook his head and resumed his seat at the desk. Tony felt the mood change, no doubt brought on by Skippy’s embarrassing the old man. “No, no, we must move forward. These things happen. Tell me when you know how much it will take. Send Putty Du for a check.” Tony put in another 15 minutes with the elder Zhengwu, trying his best to answer questions about the terrain park project. The reality was, Tony was much more involved in the housing development, which didn’t concern the Zhengwus. He’d left most of the planning and construction of the terrain park to Dale Beck, the so-called mountain manager. He’d come to suspect that the brains and driving force behind it all had been Trip – the guy he’d just fired. As he sat supplying Bob with vague, bullshit answers about the features and amenities the park would have, he was trying to envision how much he’d have to become involved with Beck and how he’d fit it in with the money-raising junket he had planned for the rest of the summer. Mercifully, the little Asian hottie who ran the house came in and told Bob he had a call from China. “That Skippy Pong is little prick, but he just saved our ass,” Tony told Putty Du as they drove back down the mountain. “Oh?” said Putty Du, evenly.
67 “Shit, that’s right, he’s your boss, right? Can’t dis on your man.” “I work for Zhengwu Sports, I do not report to Skippy,” Putty Du said. “Right,” said Tony. Putty Du hesitated for a moment, then offered more information than he usually gave Tony Bing. “It is not clear to me that Skippy works for the family business, Tony. It is not clear to me that Skippy works for anyone, or that he does much beyond his … social activities.” When Tony pressed him for more insight on the occupations of Skippy Pong, Putty Du clammed up. After a while, Tony gave up and looked out the window as they headed west on the interstate to the Eagle Ranch Golf Course. Tony had a tee time with another Texan in the valley for the holiday. A friend of a friend, he was a natural gas guy who’d made a killing with wells in the western part of Colorado. Tony loved oil and gas guys, since they had so much money they didn’t even get that worked up when they lost a few million here and there. Who knows, he thought. If he could get enough money there he could back out of the arrangement with the Chinks. That would not only free him of having to travel around with the nearly silent Putty Du, but from the humiliating appearances, hat in hand, up at the Beaver Creek house. Tony cleared his throat.
68 “Putty-poo, you can just drop me at the course and I’ll call you when I’m ready,” he said. “Take the rest of the day off and go do … whatever it is you do. I bet you’re a big white-water rafting guy right?” Putty Du turned his head and gave Tony a dismal look. “Mountain biking?” Another slight shake of the head. “OK, I got it Putty: You like nothing more than getting jacked up on crystal meth, firing back a quart of Jack Daniels and kickin’ it in a hot tub with three or four of your peeps. Lessee, that’d be one teenage boy, an aging Vegas whore, a guy halfway through a sex-change wearing a nun’s outfit, and a Cuban-Chinese with dyed hair and a tattoo of Guantanamo Bay on his arm.” Putty Du kept driving, looking pointedly straight out the window, but Tony thought he saw the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “And the lady cheetah,” Putty Du said finally. “Don’t forget the lady cheetah. No hot tub party flies without a top predator.” Tony laughed but couldn’t think of a response that that. Was Putty mocking him somehow, or actually joining in the joke. It was impossible to tell, so he resumed looking out the window and thought about new chairlifts.
69 Chapter 4 Jill was able to get to the daycare camp by 5:29 to pick up Morgan, thus avoiding the $40 late fee. She’d paid it twice, and hated herself for days after – not so much for the money but that it put picking up Morgan into this category of a chore to be checked off by a certain time. Jason may have been in the running for Biggest Dickhead Husband ever, but he wasn’t a bad dad, and as a couple they were able to keep Morgan pretty happy. But now he was living over in Breckenridge – close enough to make the weekly exchanges with Morgan at the Vail Pass summit rest area pretty simply, but far enough away to make himself useless in any kind of daily crisis. And that was Morgan’s life now, Monday through Friday with Jill and Friday at 6 to Sunday at 6 with Jason. It sucked to never have her on weekends, but it did allow her to get some work done. She’s also found unexpected free time on her hands, which she’d at first not known what to do with. The previous five years had been a blur of caring for a baby, then a hyperactive toddler and preschooler. Morgan wasn’t the kind of kid who like to just sit and play with her dolls in the corner. If she was awake, she demanded attention. Even asleep, she called on Jill and Jason, spending half or more of her nights snuggled between them in bed for a variety of real and trumped-up reasons. Now, she was sitting strapped into her booster seat, singing a song from “SpongeBob” as Jill drove them home.
70 Just as Jill was making room in her conscience to relish the sound of her daughter’s singing, she stopped. “Mommy! I was the last one today again!” “I know sweetie, I’m so sorry.” “It’s OK. Miss Julie got out some Play-Do and we made snakes. But I hate snakes. But not so much the Play-Do snakes. They’re OK, and they smell good. They’re not real, so they can’t hiss or bite you.” “No, they can’t,” Jill said, smiling at Morgan in the rear-view mirror as the little girl’s mind abruptly switched gears and she started singing again. Despite her promise to leave work at work, Jill’s thoughts fluttered back to the awful accident earlier that day. She’d handled one murder investigation already since becoming a detective nine months earlier. But it was an easy case: The addled homeless guy who’d shot the camper was found wandering along the river road two days after the murder, and he offered a full confession. Jill was convinced the man wanted to go to prison for free room and board – not to mention the stripping away of goals and ambition that comes with a life sentence. Sitting in the courtroom during the sentencing, Jill pondered the question of what it would be like to face life without parole. Her own life was so goddamned complex, every waking moment a struggle, every simple thing hopelessly bloated into a tangled mess. Or so it seemed. Compared to the jail- or prison-bound “clients” she dealt with in her work, her life, she knew,
71 was a seahorse ride over a rainbow, to borrow an image from one of Morgan’s Noggin shows. When interrogating suspects or just interviewing people she knew existed in the realm of lawlessness, she was always tempted to ask them: “How do you do it? A normal, law-abiding life is incredibly difficult, but you layer on top of it all kinds of other shit. You get pulled over with a loaded gun in the car, no license, no insurance, a bag of weed under the seat and a blood alcohol content twice the legal limit. These are things that would destroy me, destroy any average person. Yet you take it in stride, do your time in the county jail, appear before the judge, then get released after a few weeks or months and resume your life as it was. What can that possibly feel like? Or have you stopped feeling?” And Jill had come to the conclusion that such was most likely the case. Whether it was through an extraordinary amount of alcohol or other substance or just a gradual process to inure the mind, heart and soul, these people had been essentially stripped of feeling. How else could they endure the repeated trips through the system that removed any dignity they might have left? They were dead, in many ways, enlivened only when they got drunk or high enough to forget the previous day’s cavity search or court appearance. Then, of course, they got too animated and got in trouble all over again – whether it was by getting behind the wheel or belting their wife or just doing something inordinately stupid.
72 Jill couldn’t resist smiling at the recollection of the guy who came home three nights ago after seeing a late-night showing of some action movie. Blotto, he went out on his deck and emptied two whole clips into the sky, then staggered down into his bedroom and passed out. The Eagle Police and the sheriff’s office had spent the entire night staked out in front of his house while a S.W.A.T. team rushed up from Jefferson County. When they finally broke in, automatic weapons at the ready, they found the guy in his underwear, lying in bed passed-out and drooling on his pillow. He was amazed to find the S.W.A.T. team in his bedroom, and even more interested to learn what he’d done. But this new case, this was something different, Jill knew. It seemed obvious that alcohol, stupidity or the actions of society’s lower rungs had nothing to do with the accident – the incident – that caused the deaths of Dana Monroe Bellmore and Thomas Kurt Welter. Something bigger was in play, and she felt the presence of the money that flowed through Eagle County’s real estate and development channels. There was this Tony Bing character, whom she still hadn’t been able to get a hold of. But she didn’t think of him as a major suspect. Sure, it could be an insurance fraud kind of thing, but from what Trip Bellmore had told her, the guy wanted the chairlifts up and running more than anything. Still, he was on the short list, as was Trip. She hated to leave him there, but until there were some more likelys to move to the top, he’d have to remain. She’d already decided
73 she liked him a great deal – an observation Ted Cunningham had chided her about over the phone when she updated him on the case. “You like him?” Ted had asked. “You mean you like him as a suspect or as a person?” “As a person,” she said. “He’s a nice guy. I just don’t think he could have …” “Jilly Jilly Jilly,” Ted said, employing a tone and a nickname she despised. “The world is full of nice people. I’m nice, your nice, Trip Bellmore is nice. Some people probably thought Charles Manson was a helluva guy, and even Osama bin Laden has friends. Don’t let ‘nice’ get in the way of your investigation. Don’t let that personal shit cloud your vision. You have to see through ‘nice’ to get to the truth.” It had been a section in detective school, she recalled. A slideshow that offered quick bios of some of the nastiest criminals and how “nice” they had been considered by their friends, family and even victims before the truth came out. Jill didn’t need Ted to tell her that a murderer can put on a civil face and skate along unsuspected for years. And if she had any reasonable suspicion that Trip Bellmore was one of them, she’d be happy to focus her attention there. But this guy didn’t kill his sister. Even this early in the investigation it didn’t make sense in any way. Tony Bing seemed entirely too obvious, the ex-girlfriends didn’t seem
74 too likely – although they’d all be questioned. And then there was the lynx question … “Mommy?” Morgan’s voice snapped her into the present. “Why are we just sitting in the driveway? I want to get out.” “Good idea sweetheart,” Jill said, turning off the ignition and grabbing her bag. “Let’s go.”
Skippy Pong’s place in Edwards was an urban loft-style apartment with 20-foot ceilings and a lot of brushed aluminum. Widely loathed by the community, it was, by design, the exact opposite of the tacky, twisted-pine mountain haus look his father had bought into up in Beaver Creek. Standing at his gleaming metallic bar mixing drinks, he watched with a mixture of disgust and satisfaction as the large living room filled with guests. He had no idea who most of them were, but they all had the same happily vacant expression he’d found was the norm among healthy, athletically inclined Americans living in a ski resort community. Many of the people he’d met in Vail were devoid of knowledge of the world outside the valley, and they weren’t nearly as concerned with making money as other Americans he’d met. They were happy if they got 100 or more days on the mountain in winter, and they mountain biked, hiked, kayaked, climbed, golfed and rafted nearly every day in summer.
75 “Hey Skippy, what’s shaking?” The face that suddenly loomed in Skippy’s vision was that of Sarah, a towering blonde mountain bike racer who’d found her way into Skippy’s bed just a few nights ago. Skippy offered her a thin smile. “Just making lemon-drop martinis, Sarah. The perfect summer drink. Have one … or six.” Sarah made a face. “I’ll take a Fat Tire, thanks.” “You know where they are,” he said, jerking his chin toward the fridge that was used exclusively for drinks. Holding her beer, Sarah came up behind him and put her hand on his ass. He tensed and stiffened so much that she stepped back and looked at him. “What?” He shrugged. “Just, you know, people around.” So that was it, the one-night-only guy. Sarah looked at him quizzically, and felt the alien sensation of having her ego bruised. She, Sarah Mann, who men tripped over to buy drinks, who’d been profiled in Outside magazine and Sports Illustrated, being brushed off after one night with this Chinese guy. This spoiled rich kid who spent all his time in the gym just to build up muscles he’d use only to attract women. “OK, Skippy, I get it. Just the one night and that’s it with you, huh?” Skippy shrugged and offered a guilty grin.
76 “Guilty as charged. But don’t take it personally Sarah, please. You’re beautiful, babe. Really.” “Babe? Skippy, give me a break.” And she set down her bottle and strode quickly out the door. “What the hell was that?” It was Mike, his neighbor who never missed one of Skippy’s parties. “Don’t know Mike,” said Skippy, handing him a glass brimming with martini. “Some chicks don’t like the one-time treatment. What the hell — did she expect me to propose or something?” Mike, who had a face like a gargoyle and the body of a wildebeest, loved to hear Skippy’s tales of conquest. “So you banged the famous Sarah Mann,” he said, leering. “Skippy, that’s a pretty good notch on your belt. She’s unbelievable, a fucking Amazon. Her ass could be in the Museum of Great Asses.” He shook his head. “That’s not a one-timer, man. You should go back for more of that.” Without looking in her direction, Skippy said: “Look in the corner next to the fireplace. The dark-haired one in the little green skirt.” “Got her,” said Mike, slurping at his drink. “Major mega babe bombshell. Kinda tiny. Don’t know her.”
77 “She’s the one tonight,” Skippy said softly. “Just a waitress; served me lunch today at the club. Don’t stare, Mike.” Mike turned his head a few degrees and, peering at one of Skippys unadorned white walls, said: “How did you get her up here?” Skippy smiled, knowing that, for Mike, getting girls to do anything was beyond his capacity. Maybe this was a teaching moment. “Mike, you don’t ‘get’ girls to do anything. You have to put things in place to convince them they want to know more about you.” Skippy shrugged and gestured towards Kim, the waitress in the green skirt. “I noticed she had a couple of tattoos and showed her this one on my wrist.” Skippy turned his hand over to reveal a Chinese character done in plain black ink. “Symbol for ‘tiger,’” Skippy said. “So she came to your party because you have a little tattoo that means ‘tiger?’ Bullshit!” Skippy picked up two fresh drinks and pointed himself toward Kim. Over his shoulder he said: “That, and I gave her a hundred-dollar tip.” Skippy weaved his way through the small crowd. It was only about 9 p.m., and his parties tended to start late. Skippy knew that the dead-broke locals he deliberately invited as
78 “party extras” would step out on the deck at one point and call a friend or two. They would tell of the free booze, the table of food that was continually replenished, and the 20person hot tub out back. The locals amused the hell out of Skippy, who watched them peripherally all night long to see how they reacted to the trappings of wealth. Some of them would even stuff some food in their pockets before leaving, especially in winter when their loose parkas could hold more. It was, Skippy thought, one of his favorite parts about being rich; this throwing of crumbs to the local pigeons. Most of them were so grateful that they would offer whatever they could: ski lessons, car tune-ups, concert tickets – all of which Skippy would politely decline. At the end of the evening, the only thing he was interested in was the one thing any young woman could give him free of charge. “Hello Kim,” he said, handing her the drink. She flashed him a bright smile and accepted the martini. “Thanks Skippy! Great place!” Skippy looked around, as if he’d just discovered the loft. “It is a … passable hovel, I admit.” “A passable hovel, right,” Kim said. “This is Jess. We used to wait tables together up at Beano’s in Beaver Creek.” After more introductions – what Skippy considered the tiresome American habit of extracting rather personal details of college attended, employment and places of origin
79 in the first five minutes of conversation – Kim turned to Skippy. “We were talking about the chairlift accident today. Did you hear?” Skippy cocked his head slightly, and the two women to look at him with bright, expectant smiles. “I think I did, but not all the details. A couple of people killed, right?” It didn’t take long to realize that the lift accident was the major topic of conversation throughout the room. Jess was convinced it was another eco-terror attack, while Kim chalked it up to the cheapskate developer building the terrain park. When they asked his opinion, Skippy laughed, then adopted a sober tone. “It’s terrible, really, that two people were killed. But you have to remember, I grew up in China, until I started school here when I was 16. Over there, industrial accidents like this happen all the time, and they get glossed over. It’s like, in a country with 1.2 billion people, what’s a few thousand peasants killed in the service of the country?” “That’s awful,” Kim said. “No offense, but I’d hate to live in a country where that kind of shit happens.” “You don’t think it happens here?” Skippy said. “Well …” Kim began. “Don’t answer that,” Skippy said, slipping an arm around her waist. “It’s the holiday, right? Let’s just chill.” He turned to include Jess.
80 “Have either of you ever had a truly great bottle of Champagne?” They shook their heads. As he led them back toward his rooms with the promise of a ’97 Bollinger Blanc de Noire, he nodded to Mike, who gave a quick thumbs-up.
For Morgan’s bath, Jill always put on some classical music to calm things down. The girl considered hair washing and rinsing to be one of the world’s more exquisite form of torture, but once she got past it, Jill couldn’t get her out of the tub. Silently cursing the tiny bathroom in the tiny townhome, Jill finished Morgan’s hair and sat on the potty to watch her play. She resisted the urge to grab her notebook and flip through it and just sat pondering the chairlift incident while contemplating the things Morgan was doing. It seemed clear that there was nothing wrong with the lift when it was last inspected. And that was coming right from the Tramway Safety Board guy. “Morgan! Do NOT splash water out of the tub!” “Sorry.” “I’ve told you a hundred times, sweetie: The water stays in the tub.” “Sorry Mommy.” Trip Bellmore was no more a suspect, in Jill’s mind, than Morgan, and Tony Bing … hard to say. She’d finally gotten
81 him on the phone late in the afternoon and, after chastising him for not waiting for her at the accident scene, had to endure 30 minutes of “Poor Tony” — an endless recitation of all the things conspiring against this “honest Texas businessman” and the evil ways of the county planning department – which was attempting to ruin his base village and subdivision development – and the U.S. Forest Service, which had more rules than major league baseball. “I mean, what’s a guy to do who’s just trying to make a little money around here,” he’d concluded. Jill, who had almost subconsciously taken on the role of sympathetic listener, shifted to the hard line. “Listen Mr. Bing, I appreciate your problems but I’m investigating two deaths that occurred on your mountain …” “It’s not my mountain, Detective. My terrain park sits on National Forest land, owned by the taxpayers of the YooNited States and …” “I’m aware of that, Mr. Bing. But you do have a lease with the Forest Service, do you not?” “Yeah, I do, but …” “And unless I’m mistaken, that means you’re responsible, and liable, for anything that happens within your permit area. So let’s forget about the taxpayers for the moment, shall we, and focus on the questions at hand.” There was a silence on the line as Tony Bing, Jill imagined, was forming every version of the word “bitch” in his mind.
82 “Which is?” “Which is looking more and more like a murder investigation, Mr. Bing.” “What? Murder!? Who the hell said anything about murder?” “I just did, Mr. Bing. The early evidence seems to point to the lift being tampered with, and if you’d stuck around earlier today I could have shown you what I’m talking about. I’d like you to meet me around noon tomorrow so I can show you and ask you some questions.” “But tomorrow’s the Fourth of July!” Tony said, sounding very much, Jill thought, like Morgan at bedtime. “It’s downright unpatriotic to be doing anything but drinking beer and eating barbecue on the Fourth.” After assuring him that she wouldn’t cut into his beer and barbecue-consumption too much, Jill hung up, then looked at the clock with a start and flew out the door to pick up Morgan. She sighed and looked at her little girl in the bath, oblivious to things like chairlift accidents, late childsupport payments and everything else. The only thing she knew was that Mommy and Daddy, for whatever reason, no longer lived in the same house. She split holidays with Jason, and tomorrow was his. It sucked, but given what she had to do for work, it was for the best. “Honey, so tomorrow Daddy is going to pick you up and take you over to Summit County.” “No! I want to stay with you.”
83 “They have a big parade in Frisco and then great big fireworks over the lake. It’ll be really fun.” “No. Stay here. Mommy.” Jill knew better than to argue. She also knew Jason heard the same thing when she was getting ready to leave his place. It sucked. God, it sucked. But this was it, life as they knew it now. “Time to get out and dry off, honeybunny.” “No.”
“No, Skippy. No way.” He looked hopefully at the other one, trying to remember her name. Jen? Janet? Jess, that was it. She just shook her head, laughed and rolled her eyes as Kim started getting out of the hot tub. They were both wearing Skippy’s loaner bikinis, and both were full of some pretty fucking expensive champagne. They had laughed at his jokes, acted frisky and given him every indication that that most blessed event – a ménage a trois – was in the offing. Now, the wheels were coming off his evening. He stretched back in the tub and called back into the bathroom. “Just leave the bikinis on the floor.” “Oh, we will!” “And don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out!”
84 There was no reply, but after a pair of toilet flushes, the door to the bedroom slammed loudly a minute later and he was alone. It took about 30 seconds for Mike to call on his cell phone. “Saw them both leave.” “Yeah.” “That was quick.” “Yep.” A brief pause. “So, you nailed ‘em both?” “Of course.” “You’re full of shit. Neither of them had that freshly fucked look. I know that look, Skippy. Women can’t hide it.” Skippy sighed. “Mike, I’ll give you a hundred dollars to clear the place out. I’m tired.” “Done.” Skippy slowly climbed out of the hot tub and thought, for the thousandth time, how stupid a thing a hot tub was. Little cesspools of bacteria, floating hair and who knows what else. Always too hot, the jets too rambunctious. And even though he didn’t financially give a shit, he knew they were greedy suckers of energy. But they were also the perfect buffer zone, a sort of purgatory, between the party in his living room and the one in his bed. Even if most women in the world (except for the two who’d just left) took an invitation to the hot tub in
85 the bedroom area as an invitation to have sex with the gracious host, it was still an easier thing to agree to for them. Sex: It was all rather ridiculous, wasn’t it? Skippy no more wanted to father a child than he desired a puppy, yet some part of his reptilian brain was always urging him to stick his dick in the next available and attractive (and, on some occasions, not so attractive) female he could find. Sure, much of it was couched in the game of flirting and wooing, but at the end of the various exercises the male and female engaged in, it was all about penis entering vagina. After that, he supposed, all the commotion about sex boiled down to an orgasm: a funny feeling and an expulsion of some rather unsavory liquid. “Stupid,” Skippy said out loud as he pulled on a robe and crossed to the window. It was a dark night, no moon, with occasional bottle rockets whizzing into the sky from surrounding homes. What would it be like, he wondered, to swear off sex completely? Or even for a month, or a week? Even then, could he resist the urge to masturbate? He recalled reading somewhere that every ejaculation is a release of qi, and therefore something that should be more closely metered so as to avoid giving up that power. Probably a myth made up
by some old Chinese priest who couldn’t get a hard-on anymore. His father told him his endless quest for women to sleep with was a weakness, a failing. Again, Skippy chalked
86 that up to the old man’s lack of ability to get any himself. Since his wife died three years ago, Skippy had no reason to believe his father had been with a woman – although certainly he had the ability to send out for one if he needed it. Not his father’s style, though. The last wife wasn’t too bad. Even though she was the third or fourth since Skippy’s own mother, she’d treated him well – striking a balance somewhere between friendship and mothering that he’d appreciated. She was a good deal younger than his father, probably in her late 30s, and not bad looking. There was a knock on the door and Mike entered. “You’re supposed to wait for the ‘come in,’” Skippy said, not turning around. “Well, I figured you’d be too depressed to be in here polishing your carrot,” Mike said. He sat on the edge of the bed and stuck a cigarette in his mouth he knew better than to light. “Everyone’s gone.” Skippy turned. “What’s ‘polishing your carrot?’” “What? You never heard that one? Means jerking off.” “Oh.” “Did you hear me say everyone’s gone?” “Yes, thanks.” Off Mike’s outstretched palm, Skippy said, “Oh, almost forgot.”
87 From his billfold in the locked night table drawer (a precaution he always took when he had guests in the bedroom), Skippy pulled a hundred from his wad and handed it to Mike. “Guess I’ll be going.” “Guess you will.” “Good night.” “Night.” That was it, then. Skippy was giving up sex. There was too much other crazy shit going on for him to have that complicating his life. He owed something to Kim and Jess; maybe he’d send them gift baskets. Sarah, too. If only he knew where to send them.
88 Chapter 5 The Fourth of July dawned with a bank of clouds enveloping the valley and a steady rain beating on Trip’s roof. He lay there looking at the ceiling thinking it was a little odd to have rain in the morning at this time of year, but that it’d help relieve the threat of fire. The forests in Eagle County and all around the West were filled with red, dead trees – the victims of the voracious mountain pine beetle. It amounted to a tinder box of dry fuel, and most locals knew it was just a matter of time before the valley saw a big fire that would destroy a lot of multi-million-dollar homes and leave the resort economy in tatters. Now would be a good time to cash out and go someplace else. Vermont, maybe. There, he could start over and … Dana is dead. The sudden, waking realization landed on his chest like a terrible weight. She wasn’t in her apartment, warm in her bed on this chilly morning. She was in a refrigerator at the coroner’s office in Eagle. Cold, unmoving, unknowing: Dead. Trip couldn’t imagine what that might be like; the only time he was in that condition, more or less, was in the weeks and months after he was conceived. He sure as hell didn’t remember any of that, but at least the promise of birth lay ahead for the collection of cells that would one day be Thomas (Trip) Bellmore III. Lying there, listening to the rain and contemplating Dana, it suddenly occurred to him why people continued to believe
89 in what was to him the most ridiculous of superstitions. That, somehow, those who died lived on in some other place. It was the ultimate act of human hubris, he thought, to expect more at the end. More than an ant or a mouse or a dog or a horse was allowed. And he knew Dana was on the same page. “Mulch” is how she summed up the afterlife. But knowing how it felt to have someone close die, yeah, he could see the appeal in believing in something else. It seemed childish, though, like the kid who’d just finished a big ice cream cone demanding another one. And how much of human life was spent worrying about and “preparing” for the end of life and the beginning of some wholly theoretical and undocumented next level? It was like planning for a big vacation abroad, only you don’t know the destination or how to get there. The only ticket you have is the nonrefundable, one-way death boarding pass. And that’s vague and scary and unsatisfactory because there’s got to be a better ending to this whole mess, right? No, that’s enough. This was it. You made of it what you did and now you’re gone and no, you are not floating around in ‘heaven’ with a harp or even an electric guitar. You are not surrounded by everything and everyone you love. You are not ‘looking down on it all’ from some magical realm. The only thing left is your useless body, which is undergoing a wild variety of truly disgusting changes. Your once-lovely face and tender hands are meaningless; your body an empty shell that will soon become such an offensive thing that we
90 will be forced to burn or bury deep. Those things you took such care with on your body are now utterly devoid of meaning or usefulness: from the laugh lines you applied cream to nightly to the leaking womb you tended to every month since you were 13 to the hair you fussed with every morning to look just so to the nails you trimmed, the muscles you exercised and the food you ate to keep it all going. Moot, all of it. Trip had read a book about death a few years ago, after 9/11. It was entirely morbid and completely fascinating at the time, and now he wished he could expunge some of the information from his mind as he thought of his sister’s body enduring the first stages of decay. She’d made it clear she wanted to be cremated, and Trip had made sure he got that taken care of as soon as possible. She’d wanted her ashes scattered across a mountain top, of course, and Trip figured he and Carla could go do it next week some time, after everything calmed down and … got back to normal? For Trip, “normal” was going to mean trying to find work, and soon. He didn’t have much in the way of savings after his last knee operation, and if he was out of a job with Tony Bing he’d have to crawl back to Vail Resorts and see if he could get on with something, anything for the rest of the summer. He made a mental note to call Arn Johnson over at Vail and see if he had anything. If not, it’d be something like early October before he could get back on with mountain
91 operations. Three months – probably about two months too late. And Dana was dead. That would be a sort of tagline to everything that happened from now until … how long? A year, maybe, at least, until it finally settled in. People used to kid him about how close he was to his sister, but he chalked it up mostly to jealousy. Like most resort towns, Vail was full of people who’d come there from somewhere else. They had no family in the area, no ties to the community, no sense of belonging that extended past their recreational objectives: Ski 200 days, mountain bike every day after work in summer, summit every Fourteener in the state. Whatever. The rain sounded like it was starting to slow down, yet Trip continued to lie on his back looking at the ceiling. He thought about how odd it was that he was out here in the first place, in the woods in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. Envisioning the land where his cabin sat, he pictured it 150 years previous, when nothing was there at all except the native animals and the Utes who passed through in summer to hunt. The Indians were smart enough not to winter here. He would do the same thing up on the ski hill: looking at the lifts and the trails cut through the forest and try to imagine what it looked like before Vail’s first ski season in 1962. If someone just went in and cut down a bunch of trees in the National Forest, everyone would freak out. But if the ski area did it, well … it was part of what ski-town humans deemed OK.
92 Up at Screamin’ Eagle, they hadn’t had to cut many trees – or at least not many live ones. The pine beetles had done an excellent job of thinning the forest in the area where they planned to build the jumps, rails and kickers: the things the boarders and free skiers could and would spend hours going off of. Trip, a skier who turned heads on the chairlift and who competed on the Pro Mogul Tour for two seasons, simply didn’t get it. The thrill of having boards on your feet was in speed and vertical, not in sliding sideways down a piece of metal or going back and forth in a half-pipe. He scratched himself, stretched, thought about coffee and remembered again: Dana was dead. The thought was like a type of pain that peaked at times and never went away. Now, “Dana was dead” — or should it be “Dana is dead?” — was a background. Like a room painted a different color, it would just always be there. For the rest of his life. The phrase about time healing all wounds entered his consciousness and he considered it. No doubt the peaks would level off after time, and he tried to project forward to that time – a time when the room was still that different color, but the difference didn’t reach out and whack you on the head every few minutes. The other thing to remember was that how he felt didn’t alter any of the facts, and that, then, must be the nature of grief: the utter frustration of it all. Trip read stories in the paper and watched news reports of trapped miners and lost children and missing POW’s and mused
93 over the passion and energy that went into it all. If it seemed pretty clear that your miner was dead and your P.O.W. fated never to return, he wondered, what then with all the fuss? People just had a big thing around death and closure. They couldn’t stand loose ends, whether it be the lack of a body to bury or a killer still on the loose or any other kind of question mark. He was feeling it himself. They had the body, and that of the other guy, but there was still a big question hanging over it all. A mystery, he supposed it could be called. And, like grief, a mystery had its arc as well. And it could outlive grief, by centuries, in some cases. He was thinking of those stories of exhumed skeletons, forensic archaeologists trying to ascertain how some historic figure actually died. There were some other species of animal that showed grief or at least some level of agitation when a mate or offspring died. Most of them, though, simply walked past or even over the fallen and went on with their own lives. Humans, Trip figured, would be better off leaving grief behind. In fact, it was a good example of an evolutionary trait that didn’t support survival of the species. How many people, he wondered, had been so consumed with grief that they’d forsaken their own lives to indulge it? How many had died trying to get that closure, whether it was pursuing a criminal who then turned on them; dragging a fallen comrade off the battlefield only to take a bullet yourself; or
94 simply sacrificing a chunk of your own life, your own potential, to dwell on a loss? Thinking again of cold Dana — Dana’s corpse, her remains — in the morgue drawer, Trip took inventory of his own body. Toes and feet and ankles, always served him well, nothing wrong there. Knees, not so good. His right ACL had been operated on no less than three times, and he’d had the MCL on the left done once. A pile of bills from the SteadmanHawkins clinic in Vail were mixed with insurance forms going back almost a year. He could be one of those people who had to declare bankruptcy over medical bills. Moving north, he thanked the stars that he’d never broken a femur – a break that can kill you and which he’d seen happen to both skiers and boarders. Considering his groin, he could report no problems there other than inaction. The divorce had just about stripped his libido away, leaving him wondering what it was that had been so urgent about sex in the past. Hard-wired, supposedly, but now he listened to male friends talk about pussy the same way he heard them discuss golf: It wasn’t something he was interested in. Even jerking off seemed more an exercise of physiology than anything he could take pleasure in. Once or twice a week he came to it, confronted the arc of feigned interest and made it happen. Maybe 3 minutes all told. Nothing like the past, when an ejaculation, one shared with a woman, was the gold ring, the culmination of yet another arc that might have
95 taken as long as several months or as short as an hour or two at the bar. So, no, nothing physical wrong there, but it was certainly something he was going to have to address on the cerebral level some day. The rest – heart, lungs, liver, whatever else was in there – was all good. I’m a healthy guy, for the most part, Trip thought. But everyone had their expiration date – what was his? Assuming he didn’t die in an accident or get killed like Dana. If he was 34 now and say lived to be 84, that was 50 more years which was, what? 2058. It sounded downright sci-fi, that date. Comfortably far away in a future where, who the hell knew, people could have their heads sliced off and a new cyborg body slid underneath. And would that be incredibly boring and tedious after a time – living for centuries? Wouldn’t you just ultimately die of disgust for everything around you? Or would you get used to it, this going on and on and on? And was Dana lucky to be rid of it? She was an atheist like him, and so just in black. But what if they were wrong and she was in “heaven?” Either way, what was so bad about death? It was more of a chore for the ones left behind, the Trip Bellmores who missed their big sisters or their wives or mothers or fathers or children who went before them. People couldn’t stand that, which is why they invented gods and afterlives. Made sense. Wishing he could believe it, Trip got out of bed and started making the motions of the living. The pall of grief
96 surrounding him felt claustrophobic, suffocating, and when a shower did nothing to relieve it he wondered what else there was: pot, alcohol, action movies, a re-reading of Lord of the Rings, what? But the room had been painted a different color, and there was no brush or bucket that could change it. Shuffling from point A to point B was the only thing he could think of. And so he did.
It was impossible to keep Morgan out of her bed, so Jill had given up trying. The fact was she liked having her in there with her, especially in the morning when she could wake up and stare uninterrupted at the little girl’s amazingly beautiful face. Morgan was this extraordinary gift that kept shining so brightly Jill sometimes felt it would overwhelm her. She was to meet Jason at Vail Pass at noon, and she dreaded the four days she would be without Morgan. They were times of plodding around the townhome in the evening, playing the soundtrack of the usual Morgan sounds in her head. Holding one of her stuffies, smelling her pillow, coming across evidence of her existence in every nook and corner of the place. But the vital spirit of her presence was gone, temporarily suspended, and Jill suspected that a good part of the anxiety that accompanied the absences was the suspicion – however unwarranted – that she was never coming back.
97 But she was planning to work most of this Fourth of July, and she tried to be happy about the fact that Morgan would no doubt have a fun day of it with Jason. Once the exchange occurred and a little processing time had taken place, Morgan sort of re-accepted the other parent, adapting, her little heart wrapping itself once again around their new reality. That she seemed to have grown accustomed to it so easily alarmed Jill, and she grilled Morgan about how she was “really feeling” at every opportunity – usually with the idea in mind that her questions were to be light, tactful, in the course of conversation. She’d learned things like how many beers Jason drank when Morgan was there (very few, it turned out), what kind of food she was served (they ate well; Jason being a decent cook) and any new girlfriends to be curious, jealous and anxious about (just one, a brownhaired woman whose name Morgan couldn’t remember and who’d only appeared once). But she was there today, sitting in the passenger seat of Jason’s car. Morgan unbuckled herself, opened the door and ran into her father’s arms while Jill got out and stood, arms crossed, awaiting her goodbyes and stung by the evidence that, for Morgan, she’d just ceased to exist. But Jason looked up at her. “Hi Jill. Morgan, go say goodbye to Mommy.” Reluctantly, or so it seemed, Morgan ran over to Jill and threw herself into a hug.
98 “You have a wonderful time with Daddy at the Fourth of July. Try to remember some of the fireworks you see so you can tell Mommy about them.” Jason had walked a little closer, and Jill looked up at him. He was still good-looking to her, but his face also contained all the history of their years together, good and bad, as well as the memory of how he had looked sitting there opposite her in the courtroom. His face contained more meaning in it than any other human’s on the planet, yet she couldn’t look at it for long without having to turn away. He had gotten to be a person who could and would say the most awful and surprising things. Like the time early in their relationship when, during lovemaking, he’d told her that her breasts were slightly different sizes (they weren’t). He wasn’t done yet, either. “Hello Jason.” She nodded toward his car. “Who’s she?” “Jill, believe it or not.” A beat. “Fiance.” “What’s a fee-on-say?” Morgan asked. “It’s a joke, I’m sure,” Jill said. Employing the stern whisper she’d grown accustomed to using with Jason while Morgan was present, she said: “Six months, Jason. Are you kidding me?” He shrugged and put his hands on Morgan’s shoulders. “Go hop in the car Sweet Pea. Daddy’ll be right there. Say hi to Jill.” Jill stooped for one more hug. “I think he means say goodbye to Mommy.”
99 “Goodbye Mommy. I love you.” “I love you too, Morgan. Very very much.” And she was gone. In the car with The Woman while Jill looked again into that consequence-ridden face. “So six months, and you’re getting remarried? Have you even thought for a second about what Morgan will think of all this?” “Of course I have. But Morgan and Jill get along great and …” “What? She’s barely mentioned her, and please don’t tell me her name is Jill.” “Unfortunately, it is. I’ve asked her to change it but she says no way.” Off Jill’s furious look he added: “That was a joke, Jilly.” “Don’t call me that. You don’t get to call me that any more.” “OK, Jesus Christ. But listen Jill, I can understand how you feel …” “No you can’t!” “… but the fact is if I want to get remarried, I mean, there’s nothing you can do about it. We can talk about how all this will work, and we can even talk about it nicely, like civilized people. It’s not going to help much if you just act all psycho about it.” Jill swallowed the comment on her lips that would probably have fallen under Jason’s definition of “psycho” and, waving
100 her hand dismissively at him, turned while saying, “We’ll just have to talk about it later. Not now. Too much.” With a look that said he’s taking the high road with a nutbag, Jason said “OK” and turned back to his car. “Jason!” Jill was standing next to her car holding the door handle. He turned. “Safe around the fireworks, OK?” “OK, absolutely.” “And Jason …?” She was going to regret saying it, but here it came. “No sex noises. For god’s sake, don’t let her hear you two … going at it.” His face went blank and he turned and got into his car and drove away, Morgan forgetting to wave as Jill sat in her own car paralyzed and weeping. Somehow, the sound of another heavy door between what she’d had a year ago and what she had now … She stayed in the parking lot for another few minutes, alternately crying and trying to stop crying, to compose herself for god’s sakes this was bound to happen life goes on what the hell? Then she recalled the broken bodies of Dana Monroe Bellmore and Thomas Kurt Welter and wiped her tears away and started the car. “Fuck it, Jill. Let’s go find a murderer.”
After returning from the hike with Scout, Carla closed all the doors and windows against any errant fireworks, turned off her cell phone and went to bed early. On the Fourth, the
101 calls started right around 10 a.m., and she took them all with a pot of coffee and Scout sleeping by her side. The Vail Daily reporter kept her on the longest, since she was working on an overview obit of Dana’s life and work. But she also heard from the Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News and the Denver television channels. A producer from CNN called and said they were trying to get a crew out, but that it might be Monday before they got there. Later in the morning, after the story hit the wire, she got calls from the New York Times, the L.A. Times, Washington Post and even the Times of London. “Everyone’s curious about a chairlift death, I guess,” Carla told Scout. She’d only been a little girl when it happened, but Carla still remembered when the gondolas in Vail crashed in 1976. Other than that, though, chairlift deaths due to lift malfunction were uncommon – except for rare occasions when people simply slipped out of the chair out of sheer stupidity. Or kids – kids sometimes fell out. Carla figured it’d be a story reported on pretty widely, but she was surprised at the extent of it already. The part of her that spent most of her waking hours raising money for her organization and raising awareness of its missions couldn’t help but consider the many references to the Eagle Valley Resource Coalition as a good thing. And she knew Dana, in glass-half-full mode, would say the same thing. Donors full of sympathy were also much more likely to show it with larger contributions. Again, she knew she’d have
102 Dana’s blessing to think such thoughts; otherwise she’d banish them outright – at least until budget season and she was once again trying to figure out how to do a lot of stuff with little money. The rest of the callers were friends of her’s and Dana’s, friends of the Coalition, volunteers, a mayor, two of the three county commissioners and the head of the Vail Valley Foundation. Carla still had plenty of her own grief to go through, but she’d been through the initial shock, worked out a lot of her feelings on the previous evening’s hike and had steeled herself for the barrage of calls she was now enduring. She was the kind of person who could shift mental gears with great effectiveness, compartmentalizing her own feelings for the time being to cope with the needs of others. The ability had given her the nickname “Carla the Cold” in high school, and her friends identified her ability to achieve emotional remove as a main reason boyfriends didn’t last long. “I get it,” Dana had told her once, after watching Carla dress-down a male volunteer for borrowing tools without asking. “Get what?” “Why people think you’re Cold Carla.” “It’s ‘Carla the Cold.’” “Whatever. They both sound stupid.” Carla looked at Dana, waiting for one of her famous concise summaries of a person or situation. She would
103 deliver a truism that both made sense and would make Carla feel vindicated. She did it all the time. “So explain it to me, Dana, why I’m Carla the Chilly Bitch.” “You don’t mix emotion with business, you separate them. Most people can’t.” “Ah.” “Yeah, you can totally partition things, and it’s what makes you so effective running this whole thing. But it’s going to keep you single until you figure out how to fake it when you need to.” “Fake it?” “You’d make a better lesbian, but if you’re going to be with guys, you need to let those partitions cross over. Not everything a guy needs is a problem that needs to be solved by Carla the Smartass.” Carla sensed the emerging truism but smiled and said: “What the hell do you know, Dana the Dyke?” She’d shrugged. “Trip is my guy, the one I know best, and I guess some of what we have together mirrors any couple. I may be gay, but I know guys as well as any other woman. Maybe better, since I don’t have my vision fucked up by sleeping with them.” Carla hadn’t had a lot of opportunity to practice Dana’s “partition crossover” advice, but she kept it in mind as she spoke on the phone to the people calling about Dana’s death. She also thought she’d done OK with Trip the day before,
104 showing plenty of genuine emotion while also taking care of what needed to be taken care of. What the hell else was she supposed to do – dissolve into a puddle of estrogen-fueled inaction while things fell apart around her? Is that really what guys wanted? She was arguing with Dana again, in her head, and hearing herself exaggerating what Dana had said to defend herself. She’d been right – she was so often right – that Carla had to strike a balance between the no-nonsense executive director and a woman – a potential mate, partner, wife, mother – who had needs she couldn’t fulfill on her own. Men, a lot of them, anyway, wanted to take care of her, and ultimately that’s what drove them away. Carla felt fine taking care of herself. Yet she still wanted that person in her life. So, yeah, crossover, whatever you wanted to call it, that’s what she needed to figure out. Maybe she could practice a little with Trip. They would both have “emotional needs” during this “difficult time,” wouldn’t they? Carla could let her guard down some, Trip would see her deal and maybe forget a little about his own grief seeing after Carla. “Shit!” she said, looking at Scout. “Do you hear me, Scout? I’m like trying to pre-manage this whole thing, and that’s not how it’s supposed to work.” Scout gave her a concerned look.
105 “It’s supposed to just happen, unfold organically. Normal people don’t think like this. God, no wonder people think I’m cold and calculating. I am!” Her cell phone rang; it was Trip. “Hey Carla. Can you meet me in the parking lot at Home Depot in like 20 minutes?” “Sure Trip. What’s up?” “Tell you when I see you.”
Trip was sitting on a stack of fertilizer bags in front of the store when Carla pulled up. She thought he looked OK, considering, but the sunglasses he wore hid whatever his eyes were saying. “Hi Trip. So … are we doing a home improvement project or what?” He hopped down and gave her a quick hug. “I’m in the market for a metal detector.” Off Carla’s quizzical look, he went on. “The detective told me they didn’t find Dana’s cell phone up there. The found the other guy’s, nothing on it of any use. But you know Dana’s phone …” Yes, Dana’s phone. A fervent text messager and caller, Dana also kept a top-of-the-line camera phone on her at all times. Trip and Carla had, at times, forced her to either hand the phone over or turn it off, since she couldn’t resist its constant allure in her pocket.
106 “Sure,” Carla said, walking in the automatic doors with Trip. “They’ll definitely want that for clues or whatever but …” Trip stopped. “But what?” “Trip, it’s just Thursday. Dana died Wednesday, yesterday. You’re her brother, her closest friend. I mean, what the hell are you doing out here today, the Fourth of July? You should be …” Trip kept walking and Carla hurried to keep up. “That’s exactly it, Carla. I don’t know what I ‘should be’ doing either. There’s nothing going on today other than barbecues and fireworks. Our parents won’t be here now until Sunday, turns out, because they couldn’t get a flight. And I just don’t want to sit up there in McCoy twiddling my thumbs. I’m pissed off, really pissed off, and I’d like to do something, anything. If I can find that cell phone, maybe it’ll help find whoever did this.” They were both walking briskly up and down the enormous aisles, scanning for anything that looked like “metal detector department.” “But Trip, I understand all that, but aren’t there rules about, like, interfering with a police investigation? And did you say they told you to stay away from there since you’re a suspect?” “Hey, I’m a ‘person of interest,’ not a suspect,” Trip said. “And specifically I’m supposed to stay away from the
107 motor room, I think. We’ll be looking for the cell phone along the lift line and at the bottom terminal.” Trip had stopped again and picked up an enormous bolt and its matching nut. “I love a big-ass bolt like this. Look at this fucker.” Carla smile up at him and shook her head. “Trip, OK, A, I don’t think they have metal detectors here; B, if we’re going on a hike I need to get some lunch; and C, I adore that about you – you and your big-ass bolts. So did Dana.” He gave her a quick look she couldn’t quite interpret and set the bolt down. “Alright Carla. A, I agree with you: no metal detectors at Home Depot. B, yes, we should get some lunch at Zaccaza immediately, if they’re open; and C, yeah, for a lesbian, Dana had a fascination with the things guys are fascinated with. The less she understood it, the more it intrigued her. She’d actually be great with this kind of thing, looking for clues, trying to figure something out.” Over pizza, Carla picked up on the theme of wishing Dana was there to help. “It’s what she did best, and she did it all the time you know.” “Did what?” “She was like a detective, always piecing together things to paint a picture. That’s what someone with a degree in wildlife biology does. You’re out there, studying scat and
108 tracks and nests and habitats, trying to figure out who’s there, what they’re doing, what they’re eating, if they’re reproducing, if they’re in trouble. And you don’t see them most of the time, the critters, so you have to work off a lot of other evidence.” “So what was she working on, Carla? What evidence was she gathering yesterday? In the past few weeks? And where would she keep it?” Trip loved Zacazza pizza, but talking about Dana had killed his appetite and turned his mushroom-garlic slice to cardboard in his mouth. “And why didn’t you or I know what she was doing, Trip? I mean, between me and you, I didn’t think Dana had any secrets.” “Unless she was afraid something she knew was too dangerous to share. She was protecting us? From what?” Carla sipped at her iced tea. “Lynx?” “No. They already did the whole EIS for the area, there was nothing. Or at least nothing cute enough to slow down construction.” Carla knew about the Environmental Impact Statement, but she wasn’t convinced it was the final word. “I don’t know, Trip. If lynx were found up there, it might not stop the whole thing, but it sure as hell could slow it down – delay it a whole season.” “Yeah, but Carla, we’re talking about Tony Bing then, right? There was nothing he wanted more than to get these
109 two lifts in for this coming season. If he was afraid of lynx and wanted to whack Dana for finding them, he sure as hell wouldn’t have used his precious, crappy old chair to kill her. And Tony’s a dickhead, but he’s a putz, not a killer. It’s gotta be something else.” He stood up and tossed his napkin on the table. “Let’s go.”
Mandelbaum didn’t like Colorado. It was cold too much of the time, even in summer, and devoid of the kind of leafy trees and dense foliage the developer associated with true relaxation. The Rockies were full of just what the name implied: sharp rocks, lots of brown dirt, severe ridgelines and coarse terrain unrefined by the couple of extra millions of years a place like Vermont had going for it. It was colder up there, sure, but in summer the Green Mountains were quintessentially verdant, rounded off nicely and packed with many different trees. In Vail, you had aspen, which were nice enough, but half the pine trees had been killed off by beetles. They stood forlornly on the hillsides, turning red and later gray, destined to fall over within a decade or so and, consequently, impacting real estate values. Mandelbaum had already heard from several investors reluctant to fund his project because of the stands of ugly, dead trees lined up in the “view corridor.” All because of some stupid fucking bug.
110 But there was nothing Mandelbaum could do about the pine beetles. People would either buy and assume the trees would grow back, or they wouldn’t. The real concern was this leaching mine pollution, which was apparently worse than he’d originally been told by his own engineers. They were here now, two of them at least, and not too happy about being called up from Denver on the Fourth of July. The lead engineer was named Steven Bright. Mandelbaum couldn’t remember the other one’s name; he didn’t care. The two were sitting in his study sipping Fiji water out of square bottles and looking nervous and pissed off. Fine. “Tell me a story, boys.” Bright started, outlining the recent developments Mandelbaum already knew about. He waved his hand at the engineer. “I know all that shit. Tell me something I don’t know. Like how we fix it.” “It’s a longer story … sir,” Bright said. He hated saying “sir,” but “Mandelbaum” seemed an odd thing to call someone. Mandelbaum had also made it clear he did not like to be addressed as “Mr. Mandelbaum,” and he’d never provided a first name. “If you have a little time, it might help to know some of the background.” “Well,” Mandelbaum said, leaning back in his chair, “I hate the fucking Fourth of July, so I’ve got all day. I’m
111 assuming, however, that you two want to get back to the festivities wherever, so you can give me the Cliff Notes.” It all started back in the 1860s, Bright said, when miners flooded into Colorado. Most of them were looking for gold and silver, but others found mining some of the less-exotic minerals could be just as profitable – more so, in many cases. The Eagle Mine near Minturn had been one of those operations. Actually, there were several zinc mines in the area, but the Eagle was the largest – a mishmash of smaller mines consolidate by the New Jersey Zinc Company. It operated into the 1900s and through the boom years of World War II, after which it fell into disuse. “The problem with these mines is that they created huge piles of waste in the process,” Bright said. “They took out most of the zinc, but there was all kinds of other nasty shit left behind: cadmium, mercury, and the zinc itself.” At some point, Bright explained, the mine was purchased by Gulf & Western Companies, which later became Paramount and, more recently, Viacom. Then a speculator named Miller purchased the mine with the grand idea to sift through all the mine waste and get more stuff out. “But he went bankrupt,” Bright said. “He couldn’t pay his utility bills, and the power to the mine got shut off, which was a disaster.” “Why?” Mandelbaum said.
112 “Because there were pumps keeping water out of all those shafts, so once the power was gone and the pumps stopped pumping, the whole mountain filled up with water.” The other engineer chimed in. “The state health department actually did do an emergency removal of some of the more toxic materials, but then they sealed up the entrances to the mine and let it flood.” Bright continued: “They thought the water would actually help by stopping some of the natural processes caused by air. But it was a terrible idea because the water rose up to where there was all this fractured rock filled with bad stuff, and it all oozed out.” “It turned the Eagle River orange, freaked everyone out pretty good,” the other man said. “And that’s what triggered the Superfund designation and the clean up.” Mandelbaum knew some parts of the rest of the story: How Viacom, as a previous owner of the mine, got a big chunk of the cleanup expense hung around its neck. Somewhere in the story, the lawyers who were representing Miller got control of the land and had big plans to develop it into a ski area. Rumors had it they originally wanted to partner with Vail Resorts to link the smaller resort to Blue Sky Basin, but Vail backed out of the deal and the lawyers, as lawyers do, sued – and got a settlement in their favor. Bobby Ginn came in after the dust settled and purchased much of the land around the site – although he was smart
113 enough to keep his hands off anything within the Superfund designated area. “So when I bought this 43 acres next door, my assumption — and I will state again here for the record, gentlemen, that it was an assumption based upon your recommendations – was that 90% of the cleanup work was done and that any more leaching of zinc or any other shit was history.” “That was our belief,” Bright said. But it had been an unusually rainy summer, and while rain in the High Country is great for rafting, keeping down fire danger and filling the reservoirs that fed the Front Range, it was also a great mechanism for washing mine waste into the local rivers. “The sculpin are taking it on the chin,” said the other guy. Slowly and evenly, Mandelbaum said “What the fuck are sculpin?” “Native fish,” Bright said. “Ugly, undesirable to fishermen but they’re the local indicator species, and when they start turning up dead, the TU guys take notice.” Off Mandelbaum’s venomous look, Bright continued. “That’s Trout Unlimited, national organization that tries to protect trout streams. There’s a local guy here named Ken Arbuckle, and he and that Dana Bellmore from the Resource Coalition sounded the alarm. So now the EPA and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Colorado Division of Wildlife are involved.”
114 “Don’t forget the guy from Eagle County and the Minturn town government,” said the other engineer, to which Bright nodded. Mandelbaum could feel his insides starting to loosen up as the fate of the Eagle River sculpin roiled his intestines and put a vice around his chest while initiating the first stirrings of a migraine. This was supposed to be an easy development, or so he’d told himself and his Number One, Steven Wray. But Wray was in Florida putting out some other fire having to do with some faulty foundations, and so here was Mandelbaum, in fucking Colorado on the fucking Fourth of July having to spend brainpower worrying about a stupid fucking fish no one even wants to catch and eat. Calm thyself. It was a phrase his father used to say to him when the young Mandelbaum got worked up over a kid at school, a “B” on a test or anything else beyond what he considered to be normal parameters. All the yoga, meditation, Xanax and therapy had done little to help him cope with his body’s natural propensity to dump fight or flight chemicals into his bloodstream whenever adversity loomed. But his father’s advice worked better than most, when he could remember to say it. Calm thyself. “So …” Mandelbaum began, settling back into his chair once again. “We have the cute little sculpin, god rest their
115 souls. We have various officials from government agencies and we have a couple of no doubt well-meaning local treehugger types worried about the fishies. My first question is … “Just a quick fyi, sir: The one local, Dana Bellmore from the Resource Coalition, she died yesterday in a chairlift accident.” Mandelbaum closed his eyes, repeated his mantra and continued. “… my first question is how they are pegging this issue, this problem, to my property if it’s non-point-source pollution. Couldn’t it be coming from Ginn’s place?” No, it couldn’t Bright explained, because the area contained in the Superfund site that bordered Ginn’s property had been so thoroughly investigated and managed over the years that they knew exactly where anything toxic was coming from, and they had an on-site leach field that trapped any crap before it went into the river. There seemed to be little doubt, based on the tests done by the fish people, that the zinc was coming from Alpen Cliff Meadows. “We did a few quick hydrology tests too,” Bright said. “There’s no question in our minds that this is our problem.” “And I assume there’s a dollar amount attached to this little problem?” Calm thyself. “It’s hard to say for sure, but our initial estimate would be $1 million to $3 million for the cleanup necessary,” said the other engineer.
116 “Even though the zinc is coming from a lot of different places, we believe the main source is this area right here,” Bright said, pointing at the map on the coffee table. “These are what’s called ‘cribbings,’ wood structures that are holding up a bunch of old mine waste. It’s a concentrated bunch of stuff in one place, plus the wood is rotting, so if it’s not addressed, the whole thing could come down into … the Eagle River.” “Which would be bad,” Mandelbaum said, almost to himself. “Much more expensive than cleaning it up now.” “Absolutely,” Bright said. Mandelbaum had one more question, and it was delivered in his quietest voice, so low that the two engineers had to lean forward to catch his words. It was asked as Mandelbaum’s migraine was kicking into high gear, his vision getting distorted while the pain started to crescendo. He had, he knew, only a few minutes before he could do nothing more than take his pills and lie down in a dark room. Why didn’t you tell me about these fucking cribbings you stupid motherfuckers? Although he wasn’t sure why he was doing so, Bright delivered the answer in a whisper: Because this area was not included in the original purchase and environmental survey. You, sir, bought the 13 acres the cribbings are on after you hired us to do the work on the original 30 acres.” The other guy didn’t bother whispering.
117 “Mandelbaum, you didn’t even tell us you’d purchased these other 13 acres with the cribbings on them. We sure as hell would have told you to run the other way. All you have to do is take one look at these things to know they’re a disaster waiting to happen and …” Mandelbaum held up his hand, stood up and walked slowly from the room. The two engineers looked at one another, then waited about 15 minutes before they got up and left. Most of Mandelbaum’s brain was devoted to his pain, but he had about 3% left to contemplate what he’d just been told and how this had come to be. It was that little bitch – that little dead bitch now – Dana Bellmore who’d told him about this additional piece of land, right along the river. The old rancher who owned it, now willing to sell after all these years – but he had to act fast before the guy died and he’d be faced with dealing with the estate. It was a good price, a fair price, and Mandelbaum saw it as a Phase II or III parcel he could do all kinds of things with. As the remaining 3% of his brain transitioned to pain awareness, Mandelbaum allowed one more thought to occupy that small space. If she weren’t dead already, I’d fucking kill her.
118 Chapter 6 The morning’s rain had made the ground muddy, but the sun was out in full force, drying the ground as Trip and Carla walked the lift line. The smell of sage and pine was powerful, reminding both of them of Dana. “She lived for this smell,” Carla said, stopping and taking a deep breath through her nose. “Yep, that she did,” Trip said. They’d brought Scout as well, although the retriever’s nose was probably no better than theirs at finding a piece of metal and plastic. On the assumption that maybe some of Dana’s scent could have translated to her cell phone, they had the dog sniff a fleece vest Dana had left at Carla’s. So while Scout zigzagged up the line, nose to the ground, Trip and Carla walked a methodical 30 feet apart, each trying to keep within about 15 feet of the lift towers. Apart from the occasional bolt or candy wrapper from the crew that put the towers in, there was little to see since the lift had never been used by the public. If that had been the case, they would have found a trove of dropped junk, from lip balm containers and trail maps to sunscreen bottles and lost gloves, hats and sunglasses. Trip and Carla knew with certainty that the phone was out here somewhere, since it wasn’t on Carla’s body and the woman was never without it. “If it wasn’t in her pocket, that means she must have had it out, trying to call someone during the rollback,” Trip
119 said. “Which means that it’s probably not at the bottom but somewhere higher up.” So far as Trip could tell, there was no way to determine which chair Dana and Tom had been on or where it was on the line when the rollback happened. But it was a relatively short lift – only 67 chairs covering some 500 yards. There was one particularly steep section, though, where the lift line dropped precipitously over a modest cliff. It was the hardest tower to install, since it had a super compression – a series of 10 sheaves on each side instead of the typical one or two wheels most towers had. “That’s where they’d get the biggest bump and be hanging on for their lives,” Trip said. “Well, let’s focus on that area, but leave no other stone unturned,” Carla said. Trip winced when he saw what was left of the super compression. Most of the sheaves were lying on the ground, and the tower itself – which would have taken a lot of the torque the twisted haul rope was producing – was bent at an unpleasant angle. After half an hour of searching, Carla sat on a rock and pulled out her water bottle. Trip soon joined her. They sat in quiet for a moment, pondering the unhappy task they were about. “The thing that’s weird to me is that there’s not a bunch of cops out here doing what we’re doing,” Carla said finally.
120 Trip shrugged. “Fourth of July I guess. They’re busy riding around in parades, herding drunks or whatever.” “But isn’t there some kind of ‘trail goes cold’ thing? Like the longer you wait, the better chance evidence is going to disappear or something?” “I think that’s true,” Trip said. “At least according to the TV show’s I’ve watched. Seems like they’re always right out there as soon as someone gets whacked, asking questions, looking for stuff.” Carla laughed. “I know. I love when they find the incriminating whatever, and hold it up with a pencil; put it in a baggy. And there it is, the whole case solved. Makes me wonder if there’s something like that on Dana’s cell.” “Like a photo of Mr. Evil Developer pouring something in the Eagle …” “From a bottle with a skull-and-crossbones,” Carla said. “Perfect. That’s what we need.” They listened to the almost-silent hillside for a moment. There were a couple of marmot chattering at each other somewhere higher up, and a few birds making noise. The only other sound was the wind shaking the aspen leaves. From where they sat, they could see the wreckage of the lower terminal; Trip could even pick out the tree where he’d found Dana. Dana’s body, you mean.
121 “Death is the weirdest thing,” he said. “The person just disappears, and they leave behind this worthless shell.” Carla put a tentative arm around his shoulder. “Babies are the same way, in reverse. One minute they’re just here.” “And it evens out, I guess. Someone dies, someone’s born.” Carla could have gone into some statistics about the world’s population and how extraordinarily out of balance it was. But instead she said, “That’s pretty much the way of it. But it’s supposed to be … you’re supposed to be older when you check out and create that room.” “Yeah,” Trip said. “Everyone’s different ages when they die, no one knows when. But everyone’s the same age when they’re born. There’s some mystery there as well, but usually you know within a week or two when a baby’s going to show up, right?” “Right. Unless you have a C-section. You can actually schedule an appointment for that.” “I guess if you’re getting executed, you know about when death will happen. Or if you’re a suicide bomber.” Carla took her arm from around his shoulder, effecting some business with her water bottle. “I don’t want to know,” she said. “I don’t think anyone does.” “No. Me neither.” Now, Trip put his arm around Carla and gave her a squeeze. He looked into her face.
122 “Thanks Carla, for being here. You … you’re awesome.” She thought he was going to kiss her for a fleeting moment, but then he stood up abruptly. “Time to get moving. We’ve still got one more knoll above here and then the top staging area. I don’t think they got up this high, but when you’re looking for something, if it’s not in the place it ought to be, it’s time to start searching in more unlikely places.” Carla stood up and swept pine needles from her pants. She tried to simply clear her mind of some of the thoughts bouncing around inside her head. She was helping to find some clues to help in finding the guy who murdered one of her best friends, and she was doing it with the brother of the friend in question. Any other considerations – such as thoughts of something happening romantically with Trip – were moot, irrelevant, to be banished. So she mentally measured another 15 feet from the lift line and began scanning the ground, walking slowly uphill parallel to trip. Neither of them spoke.
When Jill arrived at the lower terminal, neither of the two deputies that were supposed to meet here there had arrived yet. A couple of calls on the radio confirmed what she’d already suspected: The sheriff had them reassigned to parade duty in Eagle. She thought about calling the undersheriff but concluded it would be pointless. They’d
123 tell her to calm down, that it was the Fourth of July and none of the evidence was going anywhere. Never mind that it had rained this morning, already compromising what little hope she might have of lifting a fingerprint from somewhere or finding a useful shoe impression. Mostly what Jill was looking for was the cell phone that belonged to Dana. It was funny, she thought, how so many investigations started – and sometimes ended – with the cell phone. For something few people even owned as little as 10 or 15 years ago, they’d become key evidence in so many cases. And people had a blind spot when it came to understanding how much of themselves they revealed with their phone. In the case of Dana Bellmore, Jill had already started the paperwork to subpoena the record of her account from Verizon. But even if that told her about calls coming in and going out from Dana’s phone, it was the phone itself that would contain any interesting text messages, voice mails or photos. It simply had to be found, and if Jill had to start the search herself, so be it. She ran into Trip and Carla halfway up the hill. “Well, hello!” she called when they were still a hundred feet apart. “Hello, um, detective sheriff lady,” Trip said as they drew closer. “It’s ‘detective sergeant,’” Jill said.
124 “That’s got a nicer ring to it,” Carla said. “More professional.” “Thanks. You’ve got no idea what it took to get that title in front of my name.” Carla said, “Oh, I think I might.” Jill and Carla had met the previous day when the detective had stopped by her office. When it became clear that Carla didn’t know much about what, exactly, Dana was doing on the mountain when she was killed, she’d flagged her for a follow-up interview and gone to see Trip. Now, she had both of them in one place, which was interesting. And it was the murder scene, also interesting. And they were apparently looking for something. “Did you find it?” she said, looking first at Trip, then at Carla. Trip instinctively said “Find what?” while Carla said “No.” Jill smiled. “Are we out compromising a crime scene looking for random clues, or did we have something particular in mind?” “We didn’t cross the tape,” Trip said, referring to the yellow police tape that surrounded both lift terminals. “That’s good,” Jill said. “But you still really shouldn’t be up here, Mr. Bellmore.” “Trip, please.” “Is he still a suspect?” Carla said. “Person of interest is what I am.”
125 Jill looked at the two of them, trying to decide whether it was time for hard-ass cop or understanding confidante. “Listen, guys, it’s the Fourth of July. Trip, you just lost your sister, Carla you lost one of your best friends and employees. Go … somewhere else, OK? Go to a barbecue, a walk in the woods far from here. Take care of your family or whatever you need to do. Leave this stuff to me.” Trip gave her a penetrating look that reminded Jill of how Morgan’s face looked when she was angry. “Where are the rest of them?” he said. “The rest of who?” “The cops. Why aren’t there like 20 cops out here scouring the hill for evidence. You still don’t have Dana’s cell phone, do you? I mean, it’s already rained. If you keep waiting to get this shit, there won’t be anything left.” “Trip …” Carla said, putting a hand on his arm. “It’s alright Carla,” Jill said. “He’s right. There should be more guys out here, but the timing is … bad.” “She means everyone’s down in the valley for parades and shit. Can’t cut into that for a couple of little ol’ murders.” “Well, Jill is here,” Carla said. “Yes,” Trip said, nodding. “Detective sergeant Jill is here and we’re here and we’re all looking for Dana’s cell phone, right? Right. And we couldn’t find it in three hours of looking. Be nice to have more guys, more people up here
126 to scour the area, but doesn’t look like that’s going to happen today so …” “Did you try calling it,” Jill said. Trip and Carla looked at each other and laughed. “Duh,” he said, pulling out his own phone and punching the speed dial for Dana’s phone. Faintly, they heard Dana’s ring – the song “Raining Men,” her own little joke at the world and its lack of suitable mates for herself. “It’s down there, near the bottom,” Trip said. They took off at a fast walk, picking their way through rocks and logs and the occasional twisted lift chair. Dana’s phone was lying in some tall grass about 10 feet from the tree where she’d landed. It was just outside the police tape line. “See?” said Trip. “We didn’t go in there. But dang it if I didn’t look all around this spot.” “I just can’t believe we didn’t think to call it,” Carla said. “We’re retarded.” “Totally,” Trip said. “No,” said Jill, picking up the phone with a handkerchief. “You’re upset. Give yourselves a break. When someone close to you dies, you’re in this like weird ether of existence. Nothing seems quite real because you just can’t believe Dana, in this case, is gone. You can’t think straight, which is why …” She aimed a pointed look at the both of them.
127 “… we let our friendly neighborhood police do this kind of thing. Really, only a professional could see ‘Raining Men’ for the clue it turned out to be.” They laughed, standing there under the tree where, only about 24 hours previously, Dana had come to rest. As Jill put the phone into an evidence bag and then into her backpack, Trip looked at her. “Aren’t you going to check it out now?” “Not until I get it examined for finger prints,” Jill said. “Probably just Dana’s, but it’d be, as you said, Carla, retarded not to check first. Cell phones are little treasure troves of fingerprints, and I’ve already …” She was about to say she’d had the coroner lift some from Dana’s corpse already. “… got the guys at CBI – that’s Colorado Bureau of Investigation – on standby for this case. They’ll give this a good going-over, and then we’ll see what else is on it.” “Well, look for lynx,” Trip said. “Photos or whatever.” “Or even boreal toad,” Carla added. “I’ve heard of lynx, the little cats, but what kind of toad?” “Boreal,” Carla said. “Endangered indicator species.” “Find those little fuckers on your land and your development is doomed,” Trip said. “Excuse my French.” “And Jill, any connection to any developments, I mean, that’s where it makes sense for someone to have … gone after her. Even though Tony Bing doesn’t make sense and that
128 Mandelbaum guy, I mean she was set to testify at a hearing at the EPA next month about the mine pollution on his property.” “Too obvious you think?” Jill said, getting into her sheriff’s SUV. Trip shrugged. “Maybe he’s dumber than his money lets on. I’ve seen it happen here.” “Well, my dad used to say money doesn’t make anyone smarter – or give them better taste. I’ll be in touch.” They stood and watched her vehicle bump slowly down the rutted road until it was out of sight. Trip looked up at the tree where he’d found Dana, and Carla’s gaze followed his. Neither of them said anything about the smears of blood that were still plain to see on the trunk and branches about 10 feet off the ground. “It’s just a hell of a way to go,” Trip said finally. “But somehow, I dunno, kind of fitting. Like if you’d asked her, ‘Dana, if you had a choice would you die in your sleep when you’re 100, or would you rather be slammed into a tree off an out-of-control chairlift, murdered because someone wanted to shut you up ….” “She’d pick that, yeah,” Carla said as she felt tears streaming down her face again and Trip’s arm around her waist.
129 “So, should we get some kind of plaque to stick here: ‘Here died Dana Bellmore, July Third Two Thousand and Eight. Killed by evil fuckers because she knew too much.’” “She hated memorials like that being placed in the woods, on trees, whatever.” “I know.” “It’ll just have to be her tree, and some people will know about it – the people who care — and you don’t need a stupid sign to tell the people who don’t.” “Makes sense. Blood’ll wash off eventually. It’ll just be another tree, so far as anyone else knows. Couple-a broken branches. From a storm, maybe.” “Yeah,” she said softly, turning to fold herself into Trip’s body and to hell with worrying about consequences. He gave her a long squeeze and rested his chin on the top of her head, and they stayed like that for a very long time.
It was only about 1 o’clock, but Tony Bing was already fairly drunk. It felt good, after the couple of days he’d had, to let it melt away in a fog of draft beer. It was flowing from one of the two kegs he’d gotten for an employee Fourth of July party his secretary had suggested. Putty Du had been opposed to the idea, envisioning himself having to handle loutish blue-collar employees pickled by too much sun and Fat Tire beer. But there he was, flipping burgers and hot dogs at the grill and wearing an old apron of Tony’s that said “Back
130 Off: I’m the Cook!” There was that old cartoon image of Yosemite Sam with his two pistols, laughable on the effete Asian. If someone actually pointed a weapon at Putty Du, Tony mused, the guy would probably start crying. They were holding the barbecue at the clubhouse of some placed called “Potato Patch” in West Vail. Tony had never seen all of the people involved with Screamin’ Eagle Terrain Park in one place, and he was surprised at the number. Some of them must be spouses, and there were a couple of kids running around as well. But overall Tony was glad he’d agreed to it; it’d only cost about 300 bucks, and it made him feel like he was The Man. He tried not to think about the twisted, wrecked chairlift, because it most certainly tempered that feeling. But it kept crowding back in, like an obnoxious kid who keeps popping up from under the table where you’re trying to eat dinner. And they kept asking where Trip was, and Tony would claim ignorance. He didn’t want to dampen the mood, for one thing. The other was that, despite canning Trip to appease both himself and the old chink, he couldn’t help think that it would be plain stupid not to re-hire him. The guy knew more about the lifts and the whole area better than anyone, and it seemed unlikely from what he’d heard so far that it was his fault the thing crashed. Anyone watching Tony – who had switched to Glenlivet and was nursing a Macanudo from a padded chair on the deck –
131 would have noticed a quiet, pleased grin cross his face as he contemplated this supreme act of employer benevolence. He tried to imagine the look on Trip’s face, the words of thanks that would tumble from his lips. Hell, he might even try to give Tony a hug. But Tony would say “No, no, it’s alright” and dismiss trip with a wave and, perhaps, a joking exhortation just to not crash any more lifts. Or, in view of what happened to his sister, maybe he should skip that part. Someone was waving a hand in front of his face. “Hello? Earth to Tony Bing? Can I speak with you a moment?” It was the lady detective. The not-bad-looking lady detective who was leaning over enough for Tony’s instinctive cleavage radar to register a hit. Black bra; smattering of freckles. Jill caught it, straightened up and crossed her arms over her chest. “Mind if I sit down?” Tony waved to the seat next to him and sighed. He was drunk, which he hadn’t really realized. But nothing shines a light on your level of sobriety more than a presence of a cop. He suddenly felt guilty, and a little nervous. The deaths on his mountain loomed large in front of him and he looked at the detective, who’d taken out a little book. Or was it a tape recorder? Jill wasn’t wearing a uniform, but she did have her badge on her belt and that was enough to cause Tony’s party to dissipate like leaves before a stiff breeze. About three-
132 quarters of the crew were fake-I.D. Hispanics who, in twos and threes, glided off the deck without a sound. The remaining workers, mostly whites, maintained a 10-foot buffer zone between themselves, their boss and the cop, and they spoke in low voices. The detective lady watched her effect on the party with a thin smile. “Guess I’m Officer Buzzkill, huh Tony?” “Wanna beer, officer? That’ll lighten you up.” “No thanks. I wouldn’t like a cigar, either,” she said, waving her hand at the fumes coming off Tony’s Macanudo. “Well then what can I do for you, Officer Detective Buzzkill?” There was a part of Tony’s brain urging him that this was one of those times when he had to be smart, sharp, businessguy-like. But the Glenlivet protested, maintaining a wet wad of cotton around such higher functions and leaving Tony with his only obvious default: playing dumb. “For one, you can tell me where this guy Airlane is. And maybe even if he has a last name?” “I’m sure he does, but I don’t know it. An’ I don’t know where he is. Ask Trip, or no, ask Petey Moore.” Jill had already spent a useless hour with Petey Moore. He was the quintessence of ski-country local, a wholly incurious boy-man who cared only about the amount of snow on the ground and the beer in his happy-hour glass. He knew a few things about chairlifts, apparently, but he was plainly
133 a worker bee who took his cues from Trip and others more knowledgeable than he. “Why not Trip?” she asked, suspecting the answer. “Let him go. Sad to do, with his sister an’ all but … had to do it.” “I see. So, let me get this right: You had an incident on your property involving the deaths of two people yesterday, and you fired your manager in charge, don’t know where anyone else is, and are sitting here drunk in Vail having a party?” Tony shrugged. “It’s the Fourth of July. What the hell? What am I supposed to be doing?” Jill wasn’t sure how to answer that. But she also had a hard time believing this dumb-ass developer had anything to do with the murders – if that’s what they were. She couldn’t rule him out as the guy who ordered the hit, though; and she made a mental note to tell her mom she was now investigating a “hit.” It would both scare and impress the woman who still made strong suggestions that Jill rethink her decision of 12 years ago not to go to beauty school. “You could be making 50 grand a year chatting with ladies and cutting hair instead of chasing drunks around the mountains,” her mother had said as recently as last Sunday. Jill kicked herself back into the present, thankful that the inebriated subject of her current questioning was too loaded to notice that she’d momentarily checked out. For his part, Tony was no longer looking in her direction. There was
134 a young woman in a sport bra walking a dog past on the street, and the sight had Tony doing a mental calculation regarding the last time he’d had sex of any kind. All the work he’d been doing relating to the development of the base-area real estate had made such pursuits secondary, although he imagined he still felt the absence; it was cutting into his edge. Build-up inside of him, no release, makes Tony a dull boy, why he’s drinking. And it had been … six weeks. He mouthed the two words with a bit more volume than he’d meant to. “Excuse me?” Jill said. “Six weeks? What’s that?” Tony lolled his head in her direction. “Last time I got laid.” “Oh, well, that’s about 10 times more information than I needed to hear about your sex life, Mr. Bing.” “What about you, Detective Sugar Tits, how long’s it been for you? I don’t see a ring, so you’re obviously on the market.” Jill could feel the color rising to her cheeks and the words 13 months rose like flotsam in her mind. It was after the separation, the day they’d closed on the sale of the home that had been theirs together. Jason had come to the near-empty house to collect some of his things and it had just happened. A joyless fuck, Jill bent over a chair and Jason coming after just a few hard thrusts. He’d zipped himself up, grabbed a box and walked out to his truck without saying a word. Like he’d somehow had the last word,
135 leaving her there to pull her panties back up and drip with shame and regret. And now here was this asshole. She ran some law through her mind, wondering if there was some obscure portion of the Colorado Revised Statutes that prohibited people from questioning officers of the law about their sex lives – or from making comments about their sugary tits. Even if there were, the last thing she needed right now was a Mel Gibson moment reported in the Vail Daily’s police blotter. She cast a disgusted glance at Tony and stood up. “I’ll be in touch, Mr. Bing. Enjoy your party.” Tony waved his cigar in her direction and closed his eyes. When he opened them a few minutes later, all the Mexicans were back and the volume of the party was growing again. Someone topped off his glass and put a paper plate with a cheeseburger, pickle and potato salad on the table next to him. Sure, there was some work to do, some rebuilding and patchwork. But in general he felt good enough to try Trip on his cell phone: no answer. He didn’t leave a message, but Trip would see he called. He’d be eager to call back as soon as he saw Tony’s number. Then he’d get them working again, find another old lift they could install … get this thing going. Tony set his drink down and closed his eyes. After a few moments, Putty Du turned his spatula and apron over to one of the Mexicans and pulled out his cell phone. There was a
136 text message:
137 Chapter 7 “So I have an idea.” Trip and Carla were sitting on her deck, each drinking from a can of Tecate. Scout was between them, dozing fitfully and trembling every time another firework went off. “What’s that,” Carla said, guessing that whatever Trip had in mind it was going to make her uncomfortable in some way. “I’m a bad guy, I kill someone. And maybe the whole thing turns out a little messier than I thought. I might need some clean up. Right? “Um, OK.” “So I go out to the place where it happened and I do some clean up. Or maybe it’s not me, it’s some schmuck I hired to do this kind of thing.” “I follow you so far. What’s the idea?” “Well, if I’m a bad guy I don’t go out in the daytime when I can be seen. I probably didn’t go out there last night because of the rain. Also, the one thing I might be looking for we found today.” “The cell phone.” “Right, the cell phone. So I’m needing to go out there tonight, and it’s a perfect time because everyone – including all the cops, as we’ve seen – are going to be doing the Fourth of July thing.” Carla felt something clutch at her chest. “No, Trip, I don’t think so.” “Oh, come on. It’ll be fun.”
138 “Fun, right.” “Sure, we’ll go up and camp like a quarter-mile from the base area and keep an eye out. Someone will come, but we won’t like go after them or anything. We’ll just get the license plate number. We’ll be far away, binoculars. If it’s still kind of light out, we might even see a face.” “Trip, we’re talking about, maybe, the people who killed Dana. They see us, they’ll kill us too.” “They’ll have to get us on the chairlift first.” “Not funny.” A moment passed and they listened as a whistling bottle rocket did its thing not too far away. “Know what they called those when I was a kid on Long Island?” “What?” “Now I can’t say it.” “No way, Carla. You have to tell me now.” “It’s a bad word.” “I can handle it.” She hesitated, then: “A nigger chaser.” Trip thought about that a moment, then tipped his head back and let out a howl of laughter. “It’s terrible,” Carla said, also starting to laugh. “I know, that’s what makes it so funny. Just the idea that someone thought to call it that. The image of these wideeyed cartoon blacks with scared expressions running away from these stupid fucking bottle rockets.”
139 “Well, Long Island was full of that kind of stuff. All kinds of people living next to each other, all kinds of prejudices and slurs going on all the time. The poor Jews, especially.” “Maybe it actually helps, instead of all this PC shit,” Trip said, taking a sip of his beer and reaching down to stroke Scout’s head. Carla shrugged. “Maybe. It was certainly all out there. I mean, if you had anything to be made fun of, they told it to your face.” “Did the blacks and whites mix it up, like in your high school?” Carla laughed. “Trip, we didn’t have blacks in our high school. I don’t know what it’s like now, but when I was growing up in the 70s, Long Island was a chess board: white town, black town, white town, black town. Not a lot of mixing.” “Nice.” “Yes.” “So you’ll come camping with me tonight? I promise I’ll keep you safe.” Carla leveled a look at him, one Trip hadn’t seen before but, he guessed, was known to others. “No hero shit. Just watching.” “Yep, just watching.” “And running, running fast, if anyone sees us or comes after us.”
140 “Sure. We’ll wear our track shoes.” Carla sighed and stood up. “I better pull some things together. It’ll be like an all-nighter, huh?” “Guess we’d better assume that, yeah.” Carla stopped at the doorway, Scout right on her heels. Her voice caught slightly in her throat as she looked at Trip, who was gazing into the forest. “One tent or two?” He turned slowly and gave her a curious look. “Well? A girl needs to know these things.” “You really think we need to lug two tents out there, put up two tents, take down two tents? So that the fucking raccoons don’t accuse us of impropriety?” Carla laughed and, Trip saw, wiggled like a teenager being asked on a date. She disappeared, leaving behind a cheery “OK!” Trip stood up and cleared his throat. “I’ll be back in an hour!” “OK! Drive safe!” That was nice, he thought, backing out of her driveway: someone telling him to take care of himself. Hadn’t heard that in a while.
Sian Dang stood by the window of an unused but elaborately furnished and decorated study in the Zhangdown home and watched Putty Du pull up in his Hyundai. It was one of those crossover cars – not an SUV, not a station wagon. Putty’s
141 was a muted gold color, like an autumn leaf that had been on the ground a couple of days. The fact that he had driven here in his own vehicle, alone, told Sian most of what she needed – or at least wanted – to know about Putty’s reason for coming here. She continued to watch him as he methodically released his seat belt, emerged from the Hyundai and gave it a look, like he was checking to make sure it was still quite clean and scratch-free. Atop khaki chinos he was wearing a tightfitting navy blue Polo shirt, which, she thought, could have been a slight nod to the holiday or a complete coincidence. She figured the latter. One of the things she admired most about Putty Du was his apparent lack of fealty to any one country, person or enterprise. That he was an Asian of some kind there was no question, but unlike your typical fullblood Korean, Chinese or Japanese, Putty Du didn’t talk ceaselessly about the home land, the home language, the ways of home or how much life in America paled in comparison. She’d always avoided Asian boyfriends for this reason, preferring American men who kept their minds uncluttered from too much ethnic worry. And compared to some of the ones she’d known after two years in Manhattan, Colorado men were even less concerned about such things. They might have a favorite ski mountain or football team, but they didn’t care – and often didn’t know – much about what ethnic varieties ran in their blood.
142 A man like that, Sian thought, could focus on other things, like keeping his wife or girlfriend happy. A half-minute after Putty Du disappeared into the house, Skippy pulled up in his Porsche Cayenne, stopped and got out of the car in almost one movement. He was inside the house before Sian had a moment to start collecting all her negative thoughts about him. Ardently Chinese, yet possessed of all manner of American bad manners, habits and predilections. A drunk, a whore, a lazy spendthrift. A liar, at least to her. She shuddered when she thought of the month a few years back when they’d done something that resembled dating. Ridiculous conversations about a future together traveling the world had ended in a pregnancy scare and, she was pretty sure, a directive from the old man to steer clear of the help. The request that morning to summon Putty and Skippy together — combined with the old man’s orders to prepare for a trip to China — had Sian’s already keen ears pricked to their highest level of observation. The meeting lasted less than five minutes and culminated with Skippy striding quickly back to his car and taking off in a squeal of rubber. Putty Du, she knew, would linger as long as he could by the blurping fountain. Waiting for her. “Hello, Sian.” He stood with his hand behind his back and gave her a respectful bow of the head. She couldn’t help notice he had one eye on the fountain: no way this man was
143 going to allow an errant blast of water compromise his neatly pressed chinos. “May I say that you look lovelier than ever today?” Sian shrugged and moved toward him, keeping close to the circular wall of the room just out of range of the fountain. Her movement had the effect of making Putty Du feel he was being stalked by a rare and dangerous cat. He found himself slowly, involuntarily backing away from her. “Most of what men say isn’t true, in my experience,” she said. “Mine as well.” “Especially when spoken in old-fashioned-sounding words. Like you read it from a book, an old book.” Putty Du laughed and made a conscious effort to stop moving as she continued closer. “OK then, Sian, you’re hot. A mega-babe bombshell smokin’ Betty.” A beat. “As an American might say.” “I liked the first better.” She was now within about three or four feet of him. He smiled and held out his hands, palms up. “Who can know what the right thing is to say to a woman such as you?” “Better answer,” she said, just as a jet of water erupted from the fountain and shot between them to hit the wall with a splash. Making an effort to keep his eyes fixed on hers, Putty Du said, “I didn’t think it could reach the wall.” “Things happen we don’t expect.”
144 “All the time, yes.” Sian was now just six inches from Putty Du. She was tall for a Chinese and he was of about normal height, so their eyes met almost perfectly. They both smelled pleasant, and both noticed the other’s scent. Their proximity was causing multiple reactions inside each of their bodies: an increase of blood to crotches, quickened heartbeats and a dump of dopamine into the bloodstream that was causing them, quickly and suddenly, to feel they needed to take immediate steps toward reproducing. No one truly believes it when you tell them love is really all about chemicals. “I want to go with you,” she said, almost in a whisper. “Sian,” he said, starting to reach for her. She stepped back a few inches. “No. Cameras.” Then: “Later.” “Why?” “Because I’m not going back to fucking China.” Putty blinked at the word. He’d never heard anything like that from Sian’s lips before. “He’s leaving?” “Yes.” “When?” “Tonight.” Putty Du nodded. “OK.” “You know why?” “Pretty much.”
145 “I know what he wants you to do. I want to help.” “No.” “It’s not your choice. I’ll either be with you or I’ll follow you.” She punctuated that statement by running a long nail against Putty Du’s turgid penis, which was straining against his pants. He knew the gesture was hidden from the camera by the fountain and admired both her caution and her boldness. He struggled not to react. Then something clicked and her hand wrapped around all of him, and she used his cock to pull him against her. She whispered fiercely in his ear. “I’m with you now. Let’s get out of here.” With a final squeeze full of promise, she let him go and strode to the door to the hallway that led to her room. “I’ll meet you in one hour. At your place.” The door closed and the sound reverberated in the marble room. He thought for a moment to go after her, thought better of it and left wondering if she knew where he lived. She probably did.
The Fourth of July crowds made it slow going through Vail Village. Skippy finally parked on the Frontage Road and pulled his mountain bike out of the back of the Cayenne. Mandelbaum’s house was up on Chalet Road, and it took him 10 minutes of hard pumping to get up there.
146 It took a long time for someone to come to the door. It was a tiny Hispanic woman who appeared terrified to see the Chinese man before her. “Hello, um, senora,” Skippy said. “I’m looking for Mr. Mandelbaum.” “Sick,” she said, starting to close the door. Skippy stuck his foot in the way. “It’s urgent. Please tell him. Just say ‘land deal.’ Please.” “Will try,” the woman said, closing the door with a finality that suggested she would not return. Skippy sat on a low bench on the deck and looked at the neighborhood. It was a rich, white man’s paradise of $10 million homes set right against the ski hill and steps from Vail Village. This was Old Vail, the Vail created by the resort’s founders when their imagination didn’t run any farther than re-creating a Bavarian village. Most of the homes, Skippy knew, were occupied less than three or four weeks a year. At least that was one thing he could say about himself, he thought. He may be one of the rich bastards sucking all the air out of the housing market, but he lived here full-time, more or less. This Mandelbaum guy, this home he had – which looked to be about the biggest on the whole block – was probably just an item on his portfolio, not much different than a hotel room to the guy. Just a place to stay. And the woman he’d just met, she lived there year-round to take care
147 of the place, probably dying of boredom but happy to have a place to live. She probably moved her whole family in after the lord of the manor flew back to Palm Beach or wherever. After 10 minutes, Skippy was trying to think of a Plan B when the door finally opened and shattered-looking white guy appeared. He looked balefully at Skippy and, without a sound, turned and disappeared into the interior of the home, leaving the front door open behind him. Skippy took this as an invitation and followed the man – who he could only assume was Mandelbaum – into a study. There was a brushed chrome and glass desk with a silver Mac laptop, an Aeron chair, a laser printer on a low, wheeled table, and nothing else. It looked like the office of someone who’d just moved in and was waiting for the rest of his boxes to arrive. Mandelbaum sat at the chair and Skippy stood in front of the desk: the supplicant. What a setup this guy had – not even a place for a visitor to sit. “Well, Mr. Mandelbaum …” A pale palm rose from the man’s lap: “Just Mandelbaum, please.” “OK, sure, Mandelbaum. Mandelbaum it is.” Then, almost to himself, Skippy said it again: “Mandelbaum.” A pair of watery brown eyes looked up. “Problem?” “Nope, no problem. Just um, Chinese you know. Guess I’m not used to a name like ‘Mandelbaum.’”
148 “Not that unusual if you grew up in a place like L.A., or New York.” “No, I guess probably not.” “But you grew up in China.” “Yes. Until I was about 14.” “And Daddy sent you to America to learn … whatever it is there is to learn here.” “Something like that.” “Would you like a seat?” “Yeah, sure! That’d be great. Thanks.” “Well, tough shit, I ain’t got one. Stand there, awkwardly, and tell me what the fuck you want.” “Your land, the 30 acres near Edwards.” Skippy put his hand on the glass desk for a moment, thinking he might sort of lean on it in a commanding way. But Mandelbaum looked at the hand as if a leech had just landed on his desk, and Skippy withdrew it. You just never realize how valuable chair can be until you’re in a situation like this, he thought, sidling towards a wall for cover. Mandelbaum started shaking gently, and from the soft sounds coming from him, Skippy concluded that he was laughing. He then put his hands on his head and lowered his forehead to the glass desk. “You OK, Mandelbaum?” “Migraine.” “Oh, shit, those suck. I’ve had them.”
149 “Not like this you haven’t.” “About the land …” “It’s 43 acres. I’ve got plans for it. Fuck off.” “I represent Zhengwu Sports, the largest retailer of sporting goods in mainland China. We are prepared to make a very generous offer for the land. We …” He stopped when Mandelbaum put his forehead to the desk again. After a moment, a small voice came from the crossed arms: “Go away.” “Can I use your bathroom?” “Down the hall to your right. Let yourself out. I can’t fucking move.” Skippy bowed slightly and left without another word.
Dana Bellmore’s Nokia sat on the seat of Jill’s car calling out, it seemed, to be handled, to reveal whatever information it had. It was in a Ziplock baggie sitting atop Jill’s case folder – a woefully thin case folder at this point. Jill toyed with the idea of trying to push the buttons through the plastic, but dismissed it as too risky. One smudge and any fingerprint information would be useless. Not that she expected there to be anything of value on there. It would just be Dana’s, the last fingerprints of a dying person … like footsteps in the sand leading into the ocean.
150 “What should I do now?” she asked herself aloud, zipping west along I-70 on a route to take her either home or to the sheriff’s office. “What would Mason do?” Mason Flick, her forensics instructor at the academy, was an analyst at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in Denver and, in her mind, the last word on crime-scene evidence. She’d planned to call him first thing in the morning and have the phone sent down to his office. “Oh, what the hell?” Jill said, taking the Edwards exit and getting back on the interstate heading east. She grabbed her own phone and dialed Mason. He listened to her explanation and sighed. “Jeez Jilly, it is the Fourth of July you know.” “Yeah, I know Mason. Everyone’s been telling me. I can see the parades, the traffic, the fireworks and I’d love to be with my little girl eating cotton candy and funnel cakes but … I just don’t want to see this one go cold.” He sighed again. “Well, shit, OK. Cell phones don’t take that long to go over anyway. I’ll meet you at the office in two hours. Go around the back and I’ll let you in.”
Trip went through his usual camping checklist quickly, stuffing a bag with essentials and keeping in mind it was for just one night – if that. Still, his hands fumbled and he repeatedly dropped things as he tried to get them in the bag.
151 “What the hell?” he said, jamming a half-roll of toilet paper into the bag for the third time. He was back in his truck with the key in the ignition when he hit the steering wheel with both hands, stomped out of the truck and went back inside. In the back of his closet he found the little .22 pistol he sometimes used to shoot cans with in the backyard. There was a box of shells about half full, and he took those and shoved them in his pocket. At his nightstand, he hesitated for a moment, then grabbed two condoms, also stuffing them in his pocket.
About the author
T. Alex Miller is a graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder creative writing program. His writing career has been spent mostly in community newspapers, although he also worked for a year in Hollywood (in development at the Sci-Fi Channel) and edited a magazine in Los Angeles (LA Family). He is currently the editor of the Summit Daily News, a newspaper in Frisco, CO. In addition to his career in journalism, Miller has been active in theatre as an actor, director and playwright. His plays have been produced locally as well as in conjunction with the state theatre festival. They include 5 Gears in Reverse, The Adjudicators, Velociraptors and Outrageous Claims. Miller lives in Frisco, Colorado with his wife, Jen, and their many children. Reach him at email@example.com.