Authors: Clinton McKinzie
For Justine and Colin
Danielle Perez, Nita Taublib, and Irwyn Applebaum at Bantam Dell continue to expertly guide me ever higher in this new career. One couldn't hope for a stronger team when it comes to undertaking this kind of expedition. Deborah Dwyer and Robin Foster painstakingly correct and tame my unschooled form. John Talbot, my agent, is always there for me, keeping me firmly on route with sound advice. Dempsey, my canine companion on many adventures over the last twelve years, gives me inspiration when it comes to the subjects of loyalty, friendship, and courage. Kara Kaufman, my sister-in-law, makes me look good in cyberspace. Mom and Dad and my brother Wayne catch my many falls, dust me off, and send me clawing for greater heights. And my brother Morgan is always around somewhere, just out of sight, brimming with enthusiasm and laughter.
ROM THE TRAILHEAD PARKING LOT
the couloir had looked like a narrow, radiant column rising out of a snowfield near the center of the dark mountain. Now that I'm on it, attached by the spike of my ax and the sharp points of my crampons, it appears more like a wide strip of caulking in a deep cut running down the mountain's face. Gray-black walls—invisible from the trailhead—line the nearly vertical wound. They're broken and serrated, as if the long gash had been made by a God-sized shank instead of a scalpel.
The snow in the couloir is wind blasted and sun baked, but so far this morning there is no wind and there is no sun. At this hour the night sky is just starting its fade into indigo. Soon pink and orange rays will spill down from Teewinot's summit spire and the wind will begin to moan through toothy gaps in the ridge above us.
I had almost forgotten how much I love these early-morning ascents. How much I
this sense of exhilaration that comes enhanced by an inherent dread of heights and the dark.
Over the last six months I've allowed my passion for climbing mountains to be smothered by my work and an infatuation of a totally different, totally unexpected sort: for a pretty Denver newspaper reporter named Rebecca Hersh. As I plant my ax and kick my boots into the steep snow, I concentrate on the night's stillness and the dawn's coming colors. I ignore all thoughts of the recent trial, the failing romance, the weight of the pack on my back, and the burn of lactic acid in my butt and thighs.
The snow crunches with each high step, creating a syncopated rhythm that regulates my breathing. Over two steps I exhale, then I pause for a moment to suck in the cold, thin air.
As I inhale, I glance down at the young woman following me. She is cautiously placing her boots in the holds I've made. A purple fleece headband warms the tops of her ears and keeps the sweaty tendrils of blonde hair from her face. Above her head the pointed shapes of ski tips wave like antennae from where they're strapped to her pack. Although I'm a little wary of her, I'm also impressed that she hasn't once called for a rest. Not bad for a lawyer.
“How's it going, Cali?” I ask, trying not to pant too loud. The last six months have taken more than just a psychological toll.
“Fine.” Her breath is as labored as mine but her teeth flash a smile in the darkness. “How much farther?”
Above me the couloir stretches upward for another two hundred yards before it fades into the vanishing stars. “Not much. Twenty minutes, I guess.”
I kick another step into the snow with a plastic boot and think about where my wariness toward her comes from.
There is a slight twinge of guilt, as if I'm somehow betraying Rebecca by being alone with another woman in a place like this. A place where I feel so pumped up and alive. But this is, after all, just another job. Nothing to feel guilty about. I've baby-sat for lots of victims and witnesses before. Of course, none of them had asked me to take them into the mountains. But then I'd spent my college and grad-school summers dragging plenty of doctors and lawyers up Alaskan peaks.
This woman is different in other ways, too. It isn't just that she's good-looking or that she's semifamous. My wariness comes from the simple fact that she's strange. I can't figure her out. How many children of movie stars run from big-city glamour and move to a place like Wyoming? How many of them attend law school and then become small-town prosecutors when they're only twenty-six years old? How many of them like to spend their weekends jumping down dangerously steep snow with skinny boards locked to their feet?
The wariness, I decide, also comes from the way my boss at Wyoming's Division of Criminal Investigation told me to be careful with this one.
“For God's sake, don't screw it up!” Ross McGee had growled at me over the phone yesterday. “You're on thin ice as it is.”
I could picture him hunched at his desk in Cheyenne, looking like some demented Santa Claus in a pin-striped suit, and issuing a stern warning to his most troublesome elf.
“You know that's not my fault, boss.”
He responded with one of his signature phrases: “If you're looking for sympathy, QuickDraw, look it up in the dictionary. It's between
I smile to myself as I stomp a boot through the snow's crust, thinking of the obscenities he'd bellow if he could see us right now.
The snow above has slid away in a few places and exposed sheets of iron-hard ice. When I'm unable to stab my ax's spike in at least a few inches, I traverse to the north side of the chute, hoping to find deeper stuff and safer footing. I don't want to waste time tying into a rope. Before long the sun will start heating the dark granite walls that flank the snow. Frozen water shoaling narrow cracks will melt and send rocks whistling down toward us. I unconsciously touch the scar on my left cheek with a gloved fingertip. I hate rockfall. It had branded me nearly a decade ago with a wound I took as a stern warning. My luck was used up a long time ago. I guess we have about an hour before the couloir becomes a shooting gallery.
Turning again to study the way she is steadily clumping up beneath me, I decide she's stable enough not to need a belay. But it would be more than embarrassing if she were to slip. Killing my ward would be a very bad way to mark my return to active duty.
“Watch out for the ice, Cali.”
She responds with a feminine grunt: “Yeah.”
The snow-filled chute extends down more than a thousand feet before it opens up into wider, more moderately angled slopes that continue another thousand feet to treeline. Below me it glows in the half-light like a long, gray ribbon. The steep ribs of rock confine it on both sides. The angle averages a little more than fifty degrees, although looking down it appears nearly vertical. This optical illusion is accentuated by the fact that if you fall, you're going all the way. Well over a mile below us I can see the lights of the small marina on Jenny Lake.
I kick two more steps and pause again to breathe.
Yesterday, after Ross McGee had told me the nature of the new assignment and warned me in his polite way not to screw it up, I entered Cali's name on Westlaw's news archive. Cali Morrow was the only child of Alana Reese, who was often still referred to as the Reigning Queen of Hollywood and also the owner of an enormous ranch in Jackson Hole. Her birth was celebrated in the numerous articles I found not just because of her mother's fame but also because of the oddity and tragedy of her paternity.
Her father had been a Forest Service smoke jumper who died in a fire two months before Cali's birth. He'd been sort of famous himself at the time, having been pictured on a
magazine cover with a burning forest behind him. Apparently Alana had met him while vacationing at her ranch—he was a bit of local color for the actress. He soon became even more famous when an award-winning book called
was written about the fire that had taken his life.
Cali's childhood was detailed in numerous tabloid-type articles. Reading them, I'd been appalled that her youth was so invaded by the public's obsession with celebrity. Even her preteen birthday parties made the news. And her mother didn't help things by making the occasions lavish, star-studded affairs.
I'd skimmed the articles, gleaning the essential facts.
Cali Morrow grew up in Santa Monica, California, attended a private school in Bel Air, spent her summers on her mom's ranch in Jackson Hole, and was the occasional child star of several TV movies. The critics called her teenage performances wooden and hoped she would improve with the years. But it seemed that upon her eighteenth birthday she made a determined effort to leave the spotlight her mother kept focused on her. Cali attended college at Brown University, where she was the captain of the women's ski team. She continued to return to Wyoming each summer, following in her father's footsteps by fighting fires on an elite Hot Shot ground crew, which was second in prestige and danger only to the parachuting smoke jumpers. Upon graduation she enrolled in law school at Michigan. Following that, just one year ago, she tried again to jump from the face of the earth by permanently moving to Wyoming and taking a job as a prosecutor with the Teton County Attorney's Office.
“Some deranged piece of shit . . . has been sending her letters . . . then he tried to crawl through her window last night,” McGee had told me over the phone, pausing in his peculiar manner to suck air into his emphysemic lungs. “A family friend walking by scared him off . . . but he left behind a stun gun and some duct tape. . . . You get the idea, lad? This asshole's serious.”
“No, not a sure thing, not yet . . . all I've heard about so far is a local cop . . . some guy she was dating but dumped recently. . . . That's the reason why . . . the County Attorney up there laid it at our feet . . . that and the fact that she's a prosecutor.”
Although my office, Wyoming's Division of Criminal Investigation, is a statewide law-enforcement agency primarily concerned with stopping the distribution of illegal drugs, we are often brought in when a case is particularly important or complex or when there is a conflict of interest within a local police department. A conflict usually means you've got a cop or a prosecutor for a victim or a suspect. Here there's both. You don't want a department investigating one of their own in a case like this. Especially if the victim is a celebrity's daughter.
“The ex's name is Charles Wokowski . . . and the County Attorney admits it's unlikely he's our boy,” McGee continued. “But so far he's all we've got. . . . They call him Wook or Wookie, after some beast in a movie. . . . Not quite as flattering a nickname as yours, eh, QuickDraw?”
“Don't call me that, fat man,” I told him for the thousandth time. He responded only with a chuckle—half cough and half choke—before hanging up the phone.
After talking with McGee and conducting my quick Internet search, I'd looked up Cali's number at the Teton County Attorney's Office. When I told the spirited and unlawyerlike voice on the other end of the line my name, she said, “Wow! Antonio Burns, huh? I can't believe they assigned
to watch my butt! Everybody's been talking about you, you know. You go by Anton, right? Or do you like—”
“Anton's fine,” I'd interrupted.
I'm not famous. Not like her or her parents, anyway. For an uncomfortable amount of time, though, I've been notorious. And it has grown worse over the last six months, culminating in the media frenzy a few weeks ago when I was cross-examined for five of the longest days of my life. Any dirty laundry the defense attorneys could find or make up about me was fully aired after being carefully spun to put me in the worst possible light. And the jackals in the press (my Rebecca abstaining) ate up every scrap of it.
Three Cheyenne gang members shot in suspicious circumstances. Another man dead on a mountain. An Air Force colonel for a father who'd been court-martialed and was now living in South American exile. A drug-addicted brother, a killer, too, recently escaped from prison
. I must have earned some truly shitty karma in a previous life.
When I didn't say anything else, Cali asked, “So when do you start looking for this creep?”
“Tomorrow. My boss is coming up, too. With the help of another guy from DCI, I'm supposed to keep an eye on you when you're not in your office or in court.”
“Great! You used to be a big mountain guide before you became a cop, right? How about skiing the East Face of Teewinot in the morning? I've been trying to get someone to go with me all spring. Pick me up at three? Okay? In the morning?”
Maybe baby-sitting her wouldn't be so bad, I thought as I hung up the phone. God knows I've needed this kind of release for a while. It was high time I fed the creature my brother calls the Rat. He'd been gnawing away in my chest for far too long, begging for the adrenaline rush that nourishes his furry little body.
I reach the top of the couloir with Cali panting hard at my heels and leaning heavily on her ax. Once again, I'm impressed that she's made it without a single complaint. Whining had been one of the things that had ended my guiding career. The “office” in Alaska was unbelievably gorgeous, but the beauty of the place couldn't make up for the clients. Carrying their gear. Cooking their meals. Short-roping them up to grand summits that were defiled by their moans. Chasing after drug dealers with a badge in my wallet and a gun in my hand was a lot more fun, at least when it didn't involve lawsuits, cross-examination, and my picture in the paper.
The chute tops out at a break in the peak's southeastern ridge a few hundred feet short of the summit. A cornice has formed here, a twenty-foot cresting wave of snow. I move onto the broken field of talus to the left and pick my way above it, stepping carefully so as not to send rocks rolling down on Cali's head.
I dump my pack on a flat, rocky shelf that the previous afternoon's wind has swept free of snow. I turn and stare out at the brightening pastel sky to the east. In another few minutes the yellow orb of the sun will emerge over the low mountains on the other side of the valley. The daylight is already beginning to reveal the forests, meadows, and lakes in between. Although it's only late May, the land below us is already dry and brown—an omen of what everyone says will be another hot, fire-swept summer.
“It's all going to burn,” Cali confirms as she comes up out of the chute and drops her own pack onto the rocks. The skis clatter against the aluminum avalanche shovel also strapped to the pack. With her hands resting on her knees and her breath coming fast, she adds, “This is wild. I can't believe you used to do this for a living.”
“I can't believe you used to fight forest fires.”
She grins. “You've been checking up on me, huh? I guess it's mutual then.”
Despite the early-morning cold, she's wearing only a pair of black polypropylene leggings and a gray zip-neck shirt. Both are skintight and dark with sweat. Straightening up, she pulls a Gore-Tex shell from her pack and puts it on.