Avalanche (A Stone Mountain Mystery Book 3) (7 page)

CHAPTER TEN

 

Ben stopped at the edge of the guest services counter. Typical of Kalin to pitch in and help others. Twenty-some skiers formed a line in front of the desk. All four tills were open and operating. Kalin worked behind a register, handing out refunds due to the closed lifts. The smile on her face hid any anxiety or sadness she must be feeling.

Behind her, three large windows faced the hill. The wind blew the snow sideways, and the snow cut visibility to three meters. A screen of snowflakes hid the ski lifts, and Ben had the feeling even though Kalin tapped icons on the till and handed out refunds, she was lost in a blur of thoughts.

He stepped behind the guest services desk and nudged Kalin on the shoulder. “Can we talk?”

She turned, and the look of expectation on her face crushed his heart. He held his toque in one hand, shifted it to the other and couldn’t say the words.

“You found him.”

She’d made a statement, not asked a question. Ben slowly shook his head.

“Then what? You look frightened.”

The next skier in line slapped his ticket on the desk along with his credit card. “Any idea when the lifts will open again?”

“Not today, I’m afraid.”

“But the conditions must be awesome.”

Kalin processed the refund as she spoke. “I’m sure they are. The wind makes running the lifts dangerous. We need the weather to settle down.” She handed the guest his credit card. “Thanks for understanding.”

Ben took a step toward her, and she grabbed the edge of the counter as if bad news might knock her over.

“The wind hit forty kilometers per hour and has been holding steady for the last couple of hours,” Ben said.

“I know that.”

The space behind the till seemed to contract to the size of a gondola built for two.

Kalin waved the next guest forward. “I can’t worry about that now.”

Ben leaned close to her ear, speaking so only she could hear. “Since six this morning, another twenty centimeters of snow fell, and the dump’s expected to continue through tomorrow.”

Kalin’s chest expanded and contracted in rapid succession. She stared at him without blinking.

Ben had treated people who died while he performed CPR, he told a man who was paralyzed that he would be okay, but this, this was ten times worse. He was about to crush Kalin.

“You know I have to consider the safety of the search and rescue team in every decision I make. I can’t risk anyone else getting hurt.”

Kalin clenched her fists at her sides and stood motionless enough to be an ice sculpture. Frost had formed around the edges of the window, doing its best to block out the view, and Ben wished it would block out the way she looked at him.

Unclenching her fists, she opened the till to get cash for the snowboarder who stood in front of her. “Thanks for your patience.” She missed the woman’s hand and several coins clanged onto the counter. “Sorry.”

“The risk of another avalanche in the Dragon’s Bowl is high.” Ben took two deep breaths, cleared his throat and said, “I’ve called off the search.”

Silence greeted him. He expected Kalin to say something. Her face drained of color, and he thought she might faint. He raised his arm to hug her.

“Don’t touch me.”

“Kalin, I had no choice.”

“What did Oliver say?”

Ben could tell Kalin the decision had been his boss’s. Or Turner had forced the issue. Anything would be better than admitting he’d been the one, but he couldn’t lie to her. “He agreed with me.”

“Did you have to convince him?”

“No one on the team wants to stop, but everyone knows we have to.”

After processing one more skier, Kalin turned to the guest services supervisor standing beside her. “I need to close the till. Can you handle things?”

Without waiting for an answer, Kalin stepped away from the desk, pulling Ben with her. “I’m calling Mom. And you should go tell Jessica.” She dialed, and the call switched to voicemail. Kalin hung up without leaving a message. “She must be on the phone.”

“Turner is probably talking to her now.”

“I need to go.” Kalin put her palms flat on Ben’s chest and shoved.

 

* * *

 

After getting bad news from Oliver about the weather, seeing Ben look miserable, speaking with Jessica and having Kalin almost reprimand him, Turner stared at his office phone, dreading the call he was about to make.

Phoning Roy McCann’s mother and saying her son was missing was one thing. Telling her the rescue team had shut down the search, that her son was probably dead, was another matter entirely. He could have asked Kalin to tell her mother, but he wouldn’t shirk responsibility.

He’d been caught off guard by Kalin and forgotten to talk to Jessica about the lost key. That discussion would have to wait. And Kalin. What the hell was he going to do about her?

He knew how his wife would react to the upcoming call, and it would be horrific. Crystal took the slightest negative comment a doctor made about their son as a personal attack. He couldn’t count the hours he’d spent consoling her after a difficult discussion with one of Warren’s doctors. Warren’s condition hurt him, too, but Crystal’s needs came first, and the emotional demands exhausted him.

Turner completed a few unrelated calls, asked his assistant if anything needed his attention, and when he couldn’t procrastinate any further, he picked up the phone. Still, he sat, contemplating the words he would use.

Constable Miller hadn’t stated it outright, but Turner thought the police suspected Roy of stealing the finance center money. Once the weather cleared, Turner would order the team to resume the search. They might find the missing money or at least Roy’s body, but he would tell Mrs. McCann none of this.

He took a deep breath and dialed. “This is Paul Turner calling from Stone Mountain.”

“We’ve been waiting for your call. You’ve found him. I knew he would be okay.”

Even though he couldn’t see her face, he could hear the desperation in her voice. “I’m sorry. We haven’t found him.”

“Then why are you calling?”

Turner clutched the edges of his cell, stretching the skin over his knuckles, making the bones protrude. “I need to inform you I called off the search this morning. There is a treacherous storm, and it’s too dangerous for the rescue team to be out in the current weather. The risk of another avalanche is high.”

“You still don’t know the avalanche buried Roy. What does Kalin say?”

“I’ll talk with her.”

“You didn’t include her in the decision?”

“She’s not part of the search and rescue team.”

“What about Ben?”

“Ben and his boss made the recommendation. I agreed with the assessment.”

“I don’t believe you. Ben wouldn’t do that. Roy is still alive.”

“The temperature has been well below zero since the avalanche, and two and a half days is a long time to be out there.”

“I don’t care what the weather is. Roy’s strong. He cycles, he kayaks, he skis. He’s in good shape. He’ll have set himself up on the mountain. Made a snow cave to protect himself. You can’t call off the search. Roy is still alive. He’s waiting for you.”

“I’m very sorry. Once the weather improves, I’ll instruct the team to resume the search, but I think you need to prepare yourself for the worst.”

“You don’t know Roy.”

“I am sorry, Mrs. McCann. There is nothing more we can do right now. This is a tragedy, but I need to stress that Roy entered a closed area. The signage was explicit, and the run was roped off. I can’t put the rescue team in any more danger. I will call you when I have any further information, and please call me if you want to talk or check on the status. I’m here to help you.”

“I don’t need your help. My son does.”

Oh hell, what else was he supposed to do? Roy was almost certainly dead, and he needed to focus on the theft. The stolen money would lower his bonus, and he could not afford the loss of income. He had his son to care for.

The bills grew monthly. Every time they drove to Calgary for treatment, the extra costs for hotels, food and gas were not covered by insurance. Soon they’d have to move to an urban area. As Warren’s disease progressed, they’d need to be near a multidisciplinary treatment center. Until now, he’d appreciated having a stay-at-home wife to care for Warren. Until now, they hadn’t needed the money.

Cystic fibrosis had been unknown to him. He hadn’t understood the disease when the doctors diagnosed his son. Now he knew Warren would have a difficult and short life. Telling Crystal his bonus might be in jeopardy could push her over the edge.

He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and slipped a flask from behind a file. He unscrewed the cap and sucked back a long swig. The liquor burned his throat but eased the stress.

“Mr. Turner?”

He slipped the bottle back behind the file and retrieved a piece of gum from his top drawer. Where the hell was his assistant? She was supposed to block people from randomly entering his office.

He turned toward his door and found a woman who wore her hair waist length and tied in a single braid resting on the front of her shoulder. She looked eighteen, but Turner had the feeling she was in her mid-twenties. Her brown eyes opened wide. Had she seen the bottle? “Yes.”

“Charlotte Summers.” She reached forward to shake his hand, and without thinking he extended his. “
The Holden Press
.”

He let go of her hand as if she’d covered her palm with poison. “I’m busy right now. I don’t remember setting an appointment with you.”

“I was up at the resort and was hoping to get a few minutes of your time.”

“We’ve already made a statement about the avalanche.”

“I was wondering if you could confirm the amount of money stolen.”

“How do you know about the theft? We haven’t released any details.”

Charlotte shrugged. “Word travels quickly in our small town.”

Wrong answer. He’d find out who leaked to the local newspaper and fire that person. “I’ve no comment.”

“Are the theft and the avalanche related?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“I can’t be the only one thinking—”

“The theft is confidential at this point. Search and Rescue are doing their best to find Roy McCann. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a meeting to attend.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Kalin grabbed her ski jacket and exploded through the outer doors of the guest services building.

“Wait,” Ben yelled.

Talking to him was not an option. She needed to move. To get far away from him. Her breath snagged in her throat, and she gagged. She ran toward the mountain operations shack, heading for a snowmobile. The wind drowned the sound of Ben’s voice.

Just outside the shack, a snowmobile sat unattended with the key in the ignition. Through blinding snow, Ben’s silhouette ran toward her. She didn’t care.

One turn of the key, and the engine ignited. She twisted the throttle, jerked forward and aimed toward the Dragon’s Bowl. At the high speed, snow stung her eyes. The sharp pain felt good. A distraction from agony.

She reached the edge of the cat track that wound to the summit and turned north. Roy was waiting for her, and she was going to find him. She couldn’t leave him buried.

Without a helmet and gloves, her skin froze.

The trail ahead turned sharply to the left, and she hit the curve too fast. The rear of the snowmobile slid sideways and hit a tree. The machine reverberated but kept moving.

She throttled up, leaned forward over the windscreen and squished her knees against the cold leather seat. Bouncing and sliding to a higher altitude, closer to Roy with every second, she ignored the danger.

The snowmobile flew over a mound of snow, landed hard and her chin hit the top of the windshield. Blood splattered on the screen. She wiped her chin and kept going.

How could Ben leave Roy buried on the frozen terrain? Didn’t he care about her?

Frantic to get to Roy, she increased speed. Her safety meant nothing if she could reach him.

Almost blinded by the wind and snow, she lost track of the path. Both lengths of the snowmobile’s skis detached from the ground, and she was airborne. The snowmobile landed with a thud in deep snow. Kalin launched over the windshield and slammed onto her back.

Like an overturned turtle, she couldn’t get up. Everywhere she pushed, she sank deeper. She thrust her head from side to side, gulping air. She was going to be buried just like Roy. The snow would cover her, too. She screamed.

A ghost appeared over her. Death had arrived to claim her.

“Grab my hand.”

“Get away from me!”

“Kalin, it’s Ben. Let me help you.”

With frozen fingers, she wiped the snow off her eyes. The madness settled, and she reached for Ben.

He pulled her forward, and she leaned into his chest. She closed her eyes and sobbed. “This can’t be true.”

Ben put his gloved hand under her chin and lifted her face. She winced and shoved his hand away.

“I need to check your face.”

“Don’t touch me,” she said but pulled him tighter.

“Please, just let me see how badly you’re hurt.”

Kalin shook her head. “I need to find Roy.”

Ben tightened his hold on her and put his lips to her ear. “I’m sorry. You can’t imagine how sorry.”

“Then why did you call off the search?”

“When you have time to think, you’ll understand. It’s too dangerous for the others. And we can’t help Roy now.”

“Yes, you can.”

“You know he’s gone. If I thought there was even a small chance he was alive, I wouldn’t quit.”

Within seconds of snow gathering on their clothes, the wind whipped the flakes away. Ben released Kalin and held both of her hands. She let him lead her to his snowmobile.

“I’ll come back for yours later.”

Kalin mounted the sled behind him, put her arms around his waist, tucked her hands into his pockets and rested her head on his back.

 

* * *

 

Four gurneys filled half of the ski patrol clinic, each separated from the other by a beige curtain. The other half of the floor contained Ben’s office and a sanitary cleaning station. A cupboard of medical supplies covered one wall, and windows facing the ski hill provided the view. A slight odor of disinfectant lingered.

Cotton pads covered with Kalin’s blood littered one gurney. She’d let Ben clean the wound and had agreed to have one of the patrollers drive her to the hospital. By the amount of blood, Ben figured she needed stitches.

He unlocked the door, the door to the first office of his career. The hub of ski patrol functioned from there. And he’d been useless. His beautiful wife almost killed herself because he bumbled the way he told her the news. He was such a jerk.

The outer door opened, and he listened to approaching footsteps.

Oliver appeared. “Let’s go into your office.”

Ben stepped backward, closed the door behind his boss and sagged into his chair.

Oliver remained standing, played with his ear without a lobe and stared out the window. “What happened?”

Ben related the story, including the crashed snowmobile.

“Do you want to go to town?” Oliver asked.

“Kalin wanted me to stay here in case the weather changes and we can restart the search.”

“Not likely. I can’t believe the weather.”

“Then you think I made the right call?” Ben only second-guessed his decision to call off the search because Kalin reacted so badly.

“I think the weather’s getting worse. There was no other choice.”

Ben tapped his monitor and the computer came alive. The current weather report appeared on the screen. “I know. I guess.”

“We’ve known each other a long time.”

“Is something wrong?” Ben asked.

“I’m going to tell you something I’ve said I wouldn’t.”

The message must be bad, or Oliver wouldn’t be hesitating. “Okay.”

“I need to ask you not to tell Kalin.”

“That’s hard to promise when I don’t know what you’re going to say.”

“I know, but…Well, Kalin can be headstrong, and I don’t want her telling Turner about this. I’m making a choice I shouldn’t.”

Ben examined his fingernails. If he promised Oliver he wouldn’t say anything, then he’d stick to his word. They’d been through many difficult situations over the last eight years together, and clearly Oliver trusted him. He didn’t want to have a secret from Kalin, especially now with their strained relationship, but Oliver thought he needed to know whatever this was. “Will I be disloyal to Kalin if I don’t tell her?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I’ll keep it to myself then.”

“Turner came to see me. He thinks Roy is the finance center thief.”

“Crap.”

“He thinks Kalin might be involved, too.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I think
he
was.”

“Kalin would never risk her job here.” The instant he said the words, White Peaks came to mind. In Turner’s eyes, Kalin thinking of leaving her job would make her look guilty.

“That’s why I thought you should know.”

“Why would Turner tell you? I don’t get it.”

“Because you’re married to her, and he wants me to keep an eye on you.”

“He thinks I’m involved?”

“He didn’t say that, but he doesn’t want you searching the mountain alone.”

“This sucks.”

“He wants me to report anything you tell me about Kalin or Roy that might be related to the theft. Even though Kalin is the head of security, he doesn’t want her investigating.”

“Thanks for letting me know.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Try to persuade her not to investigate.” Ben turned back to the image on the screen. The reports showed the wind getting stronger overnight.

Other books

El vuelo de las cigüeñas by Jean-Christophe Grange
The Sekhmet Bed by L. M. Ironside
The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
Friend of Madame Maigret by Georges Simenon
The Ladykiller by Martina Cole
The Mane Event by Shelly Laurenston