The Descent From Truth

Chapter 1 

He spotted the tracks while schussing over the crest of Black Oak Ridge. They led away from company property, and he had to push to reach his campsite before the wind, already strengthening, developed a punch. Why not just ignore them?

A moment later, his cell phone buzzed. He dug it from under his parka. “Alex Bryson.”

“Everything quiet up there?” asked his supervisor.

Seven thousand feet above sea level, the middle of the Colorado Rockies in the dead of winter, and Flanagan wanted to know if it was quiet? “Operations are normal.”

“I’m gonna be up to my ass in VIPs over here. Got the boss of bosses inbound.”

“Koenig? Why would he visit a second-rate ski resort like Silver Hill?”

Mister Koenig to you, hotshot. Guess he wants to see what kind of place he bought. I’m putting on extra security.”

“You expecting trouble?”

“Just keeping his bodyguards happy. I figure you’re on Black Oak Ridge by now. Am I right?”

To operate his cell phone, Alex had slipped off the thermal shells he wore over his gloves. The chill seeping through the kidskin liner reminded him how quickly—and dangerously—the temperature could drop. “Affirmative,” he said, anxious to wrap up the call and get moving.

“That puts you how close to the highway? Two, maybe three miles?”

“If I had wings. There’s the matter of the gorge and the river.”

“Some of Mr. Koenig’s people are driving up instead of flying. Anybody wanted to whack them, they’d probably try it along that flat stretch of highway paralleling the ridge. You see or hear anything—helicopter, snowmobile, a light plane—report in.”

Alex squinted at the tracks he’d spotted moments before. Probably an elk or a deer trying to get to a lower elevation. If he mentioned them, Flanagan would order him to take a closer look.

“Bryson? You still with me, boy?”

Boy? That clinched it, screw the tracks. “If I see anything, I’ll—” Alex pressed the End Call button. He could get away with it because physical obstructions often zapped the connection. So did distance from cell towers. His two-way radio had died a week earlier, and the phone was a temporary substitute.

Flanagan wanted him to watch for hit men? They weren’t paying him enough for that. Besides, who would pick a place like this for a snuff?

He stared into the distance where the barren, flat crest of Black Oak Ridge dropped more than two hundred feet to the Warrior River, which separated the ridge from the highway. Actually, it wasn’t a bad spot for an ambush—his Army Special Forces training had taught him that. A helicopter could hover over the ridge and disgorge a snowmobile. Four or five miles north of where he stood, the back road to Silver Hill crossed the river on a single-lane bridge and intersected the highway. A sniper could . . .

Alex shook his head. He was getting as paranoid as Flanagan. The idea of a killer wandering around in this frigid stretch of Rocky Mountain wilderness was laughable.

Even so, a closer look at those tracks wouldn’t hurt. He could verify that they were made by an animal and be on his way. Leaning on his ski poles, he resumed gliding.

Drifting snow had partially filled the prints, but close up, the pattern was unmistakably manmade. Someone without skis or snowshoes and with a peculiar gait. Most people wading through deep snow would lift their feet high and lunge forward. This fellow plowed a furrow, swinging his body from side to side as if coping with a game leg or packing an awkward burden. Based on the tracks’ depth and the rate at which blowing snow was filling them, they had to be less than half an hour old. The direction they led, however, wouldn’t take the guy anywhere near the highway. He was probably heading for the weekender cabin that sat maybe half a mile off Alex’s patrol route, another five miles north.

The western terminus of his route was Wolf’s Head, a sheltered campsite where the company left provisions for him. He’d finished his last ready-to-eat trail meal for breakfast and was down to the venison jerky he carried for emergencies, but he could ski the rest of the way and make Wolf’s Head in a couple of hours—if he ignored the tracks. The wind, however, was already picking up. It would drop the chill factor off the bottom of the scale, and anyone dumb enough to wander around this high up without skis or snowshoes probably didn’t have survival gear. Blinded by blowing snow, the guy could even stumble over a ledge.

With a resigned sigh, Alex settled into a pace to close the gap between them. Half an hour later, he paused and swept the trail with his binoculars. Barely visible in the blowing snow, the tracks zigzagged and disappeared into rocks on the lip of the Warrior River Gorge. The man had probably bedded down there. Alex found shelter from the wind behind a boulder jutting head-high out of the snow. Report in, he decided. Find out how serious Flanagan was about this assassin bit.

Squatting with his back against the boulder, he powered up his phone. “No Service Available,” its display panel informed him. He shifted to another location, away from the boulder. Still no signal.

The cloudless sky remained an all-enveloping blue dome, but windblown surface snow gave everything a misty, out-of-focus look. Squinting, he peered into a gully just short of the drop-off to the river and spotted light burgundy—a coattail, maybe—peeking from behind a boulder.

Bright color, easy to spot. An assassin would wear camouflage, so that idea was off the table. But even a stranded hiker wouldn’t take kindly to being stalked. The thing to do was have him show himself, make sure he was unarmed.

“Hello in the rocks,” Alex shouted, his hands cupped around his mouth. “I’m with Colorado Land and Cattle.”

Only the whispering wind answered. It smothered his words and swept them away.

The man ought to be overjoyed at being found, so why wasn’t he coming out? “Step into the open!”

No answer.

Why not just leave the idiot? Somewhere on the route to Wolf’s Head, signal strength would permit a phone call to Flanagan.

But what if the guy was already hypothermic? Maybe unconscious?

Okay, take him by surprise, make sure he wasn’t dangerous. “You’ve been warned,” Alex shouted. “I’m gonna report this.” Making his equipment clatter and bang, he tromped away before shifting to stealth mode.

Cantilevered rock jutted over the edge of the gully. Black and smooth, the overhang looked like hardened lava. Centuries of melting snow had eroded softer minerals underneath, creating the shelter where the man was trying to hide. Only a thin layer of snow covered the rocks, so Alex stepped out of his skis and shucked his backpack before working his way to the top of the overhang. He peered over and saw the burgundy material, but just barely. To get a better look, he took another step.

Loose snow disguised an abrupt slope; his foot skidded. Teetering, he struggled to regain his balance.

Then he fell.

He dropped his rifle and clawed at the smooth rock, searching in vain for a finger hold. Feet first, he slid over the ledge and landed in the gully on bent knees.

His rifle, half buried in snow, lay close to the burgundy-clad figure, who huddled scant feet away, leaning against a boulder and clutching a bulky parcel. Alex lunged to close the distance between them. The man tried to run, but Alex fisted his coat and jerked.

Small and light, the guy stumbled backward. His bundle plopped into a snow bank.

A muffled shriek warned Alex that he’d been suckered. The runt wasn’t alone. To use him as a shield, Alex spun him around.

The noise shrilled again. It came from the bundle in the snow.

A feminine voice pleaded, “Don’t hurt my baby!” 

Chapter 2

 A woman. Hair cropped short like a man’s, but delicate features. Alex unhanded her, and she lurched toward the screeching, blanket-wrapped bundle. He grabbed the back of her coat and pulled her away. “Put your hands against the rocks. Spread your feet.”

She obeyed, and the position put enough weight on her arms so that a swift kick to her ankles would send her sprawling. “Let me help my baby,” she said in a teary voice.

“In a minute.” He lifted the squalling bundle, laid it where the snow was thinner, and focused his attention back on the woman. “Don’t move.”

During an Army Special Forces exercise, a female prisoner had scored simulated kills on all three members of Alex’s infiltration team with a little .25-caliber revolver she’d taped to her inner thigh. A by-the-book frisking would have averted the fiasco, but his exploring fingers stopped short when she pleaded to preserve her dignity. He had never repeated that mistake. After frisking this one, he knew she carried no weapons.

“You can stand.” Squatting with the baby balanced on his thighs, he opened the blanket, unzipped a blue snowsuit, and rummaged inside: no weapons. The baby, a hefty boy maybe a year old, shrieked anew at the cold-fingered intrusion.

“Stay back,” Alex snapped when the woman lunged forward, arms outstretched. She didn’t seem dangerous, but her presence in this desolate place was peculiar enough to make him cautious.

He finished his search and, more relaxed, zipped up the snowsuit, adjusted its hood, and wrapped the blanket back around the baby. As he placed the wailing, re-bundled child in the woman’s arms, he looked directly into her eyes for the first time. They stared at each other for a long moment before she shifted her gaze to the baby. The dark sheen of her irises, the same glistening ebony as her bobbed and tousled hair, made the whites of her eyes look startlingly clear and bright. Almost too big for her face, the eyes were emphasized by long lashes.

The baby worked his arms free of the blanket and clung to her neck. He stopped crying but still fretted. He wasn’t large, maybe twenty or twenty-five pounds, but seemed huge in her arms.

Watching the woman cuddle and comfort the child, Alex decided he’d let his adrenaline rush carry him away. “Sorry for roughing you up. But what in God’s name are you doing out here?”

Chattering teeth garbled her words: “We got lost.”

A canvas bag lay in the snow next to where the baby had fallen. Nothing inside but disposable diapers, baby powder, a pacifier, a rattle, moistened towelettes, and an opened but resealed jar of Gerber’s strained pears—baby food. No weapon, no wallet, no ID.

They needed shelter, and this was probably as good as they would find. Overhanging rock formed a natural roof. The space under it was roughly triangular, maybe nine feet wide at its base, with an apex sticking out about seven feet. It was no more than waist high along the rear but rose to seven or eight feet near its outer edge.

“Settle down over there.” Alex pointed to a spot near the base of the overhang. “I’ll rig a wall around you.”

The woman squatted with her back pressed against the rock and buried her face in the fabric of the baby’s snowsuit. She trembled visibly. Alex couldn’t tell if it was from cold, or fear.

He stripped off his parka and draped it around her, then gathered the gear he had discarded earlier and dug a sheet of Mylar from his backpack. The Mylar, a silvery, pliable film, weighed almost nothing and was nearly indestructible. Although it opened into a twenty-four-foot square, when folded it took no more space than a carton of cigarettes. He climbed up on the rock from which he had tumbled and, digging through the snow, collected a pile of small boulders. Using them to anchor the Mylar along the top of the overhang, he draped it down to cover the shelter’s exposed sides.

Inside the shelter, he unfurled his sleeping bag along the rock wall where excess Mylar created a moisture barrier over part of the floor. His backpack went into the cramped space at one end of the bag. Conscious of the woman’s gaze tracking him, he set up his tiny, portable stove. That left standing room near the shelter’s apex, with enough headroom for his six-foot-one-inch frame. He lit the stove’s fuel gel—homemade by mixing alcohol with calcium acetate—and edged it closer to her. Then he unhooked the military-surplus web belt that held his canteen, compass, utility knife, cell phone, and ammunition pouch. He draped the belt over his backpack. To keep his cell phone dry, he slipped it off the belt and pushed it inside the backpack.

The translucent Mylar blocked much of the afternoon’s waning light and made the woman’s features indistinct, but their earlier, eyeball-to-eyeball examination stuck in Alex’s head. “Your kid all right?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Fall didn’t hurt him?”

A shake of her head. After the way he’d manhandled her, she wasn’t ready to talk.

The baby, with his snowsuit and blanket, was dry and warm. From frisking the woman, however, Alex knew that her clothes—a woolen coat, gray wool pants, and a white, button-front blouse—were way too light for the weather. Ankle-high boots, pointy toed and loose at the top, looked designed for fashion rather than protection. They were soaked, as were her pants from the knees down.

He dug a pair of thermal socks from his backpack and motioned for her to sit on the sleeping bag. “Let’s get these soggy boots off.” Kneeling, he lifted her foot onto his bent leg.

She jerked free and backed across the sleeping bag, dragging the baby with her. The little guy squirmed and started fretting again.

“You have every right to be cautious, after the way I jumped you.” Alex made his voice as soft as possible. “I shouldn’t have done that. But I’ve been warned to watch for bad guys, and . . .” The explanation sounded silly even to him. “We need to dry your feet. If they get frostbitten, you could lose them.”

Giving her time to digest that, he deliberately kept the left side of his face turned away. A quarter-inch-wide scar stretched from the corner of his left eye to the base of his jawbone. No facial hair grew along it, and the glaring pink tissue, the way the scar pulled down the edge of his eye, might flip her panic switch.

“You’re safe,” he said after a moment. He lifted her foot again.

She didn’t pull away this time, so he peeled off the boot and the wet sock. Holding her foot close to the tiny stove, he rubbed to stimulate circulation. He tried not to focus on the feel of smooth skin against his hands.

Tense and shivering, she let him minister to her. The baby rolled onto all fours and started to crawl off the sleeping bag. She made a clucking noise, pulled him close, and cuddled him.

Alex worked a thermal sock onto her foot. “What are you doing out here?”

“Our automobile got stuck.”

A faint trace of accent; not one he recognized. Mostly, it was her word choice and the precise way she articulated each syllable that made him guess English was not her mother tongue. Her features suggested some Native American or Asian ancestry.

A stalled car meant she’d been driving the shortcut to Silver Hill. It was the only road on this side of the Warrior River. “Mistake to leave your vehicle.” He pulled off her other boot and sock and began rubbing that foot. “The company helicopter won’t fly in this weather, so we’re stuck overnight.” He wrestled a dry sock onto her foot, then dug through his pack for the bottom half of spare thermal long johns. “You can’t sleep in those wet clothes.” He handed the garment to her and turned his back. “They’ll be way too big, but it’s just for sleeping. Your things should dry by morning.”

Though he heard nothing but the wind howling around their shelter and the youngster’s babbling, a stirring of the cold, heavy air told him she was moving. After a brief interval, he smelled damp wool and turned to find her kneeling on the sleeping bag, holding the pants out to him. She had rolled the legs of the thermal underwear up to her ankles.

He laid the pants aside, pulled his parka off her shoulders, and peeled away her coat, uttering assurances when she tensed. He unzipped the sleeping bag and held it open. “Go ahead.”

She hesitated another moment, staring at him. With a little nod, she slid between the folds and pulled the baby in beside her.

Alex zipped up the bag. It fit him like a body glove, but the woman and her child had room to spare. He draped her pants over his backpack, positioned it and her sodden boots and socks so the ultra-dry air would suck out the moisture overnight, and worked his way around the edges of their cramped shelter to adjust the stones that held the wind-stressed Mylar in place. Then he slipped back into his parka and relaxed next to the sleeping bag.

“How’d you get so far off the road?” he asked.

“I was trying—”

The baby apparently found the combination of snowsuit and sleeping bag too warm. He began fretting and twisting. The woman unzipped the bag partway and let him crawl out to sit on top. She pulled his pacifier from the diaper bag and slipped off brown suede gloves to warm it in her hands

Watching, Alex noted that she wore no wedding ring. He also noticed that her right thumb looked deformed. Its tip flared abnormally, and the first joint seemed fused.

The pacifier had a ludicrously large shield. When she stuck it in the baby’s mouth, it covered his chin and much of his cheeks. The bright green, perforated plastic reminded Alex of a hockey goalie’s mask.

“How’d you get so far off the road?” he asked again.

“I heard an automobile engine.” The woman kept her gaze on the baby. Her eyes seemed to drink him in, as if she couldn’t get enough of his image. “It did not sound far away.”

“Probably a snowplow on the highway. Wouldn’t be far if you were a bird, but it’s across the gorge. Anyone with you?”


She’d hesitated; was she lying? Strange that she would leave her wallet and ID behind but remember to grab a diaper bag. Maybe mothers were wired that way. “You didn’t leave anyone in the car?”

“We were traveling alone. What are you doing up here all by yourself?”

“I’m a security guard.”

“Security amid this desolation? For whom?”

“Good question.”

The real answer was no one. He’d gotten the assignment after clashing with his supervisor on the day he first reported to Colorado Land and Cattle with a letter of employment from the parent company. With Alex standing in front of his desk, Flanagan had studied a computer printout and sneered. “Nine years in the Army, most of it with Special Forces, and they kicked you out.” He dropped the printout onto his desk. “If the Army doesn’t want you, why should I?”

Never complain, never explain, Alex reminded himself. Poker-faced, he slouched in front of the supervisor’s desk. “That’s up to you.”

“If it was, you’d be on the street.” Flanagan looked as if he had just swallowed a dose of castor oil. “The head-shed put you on the payroll, so I’ll find you something to do.”

Something to do had become this patrol route that took Alex along the border of company-owned land, five days of solitary trekking on skis and snowshoes over terrain that was mostly too rugged for snowmobiles, and a day of rest before making the return trip. “Check for squatters,” Flanagan had retorted when Alex asked the purpose of the patrol.

But that was more information than his guest needed. “Nobody, usually,” he told her. “At the moment, some visiting bigwig.”

“Is this large wig a celebrity?”

“Not really.”

In Colorado, Maximillian Koenig’s celebrity was of the distinctly negative kind. His recent purchase of Colorado Land and Cattle Company, including the Silver Hill Ski Resort, had been on local television for months, resurfacing on every slow news day, and commentators were unhappy with the foreigner’s acquisition of a major local enterprise.    

Compounding the unfavorable publicity, Koenig’s visit coincided with a flurry of speculation about his interest in newly discovered deposits of minerals called rare earth in his home country. Until the news hit, the only thing Alex had known about rare earth was that the minerals were expensive and had weirdly spelled, tongue-twisting names. He had since learned that they were essential ingredients in high-tech gadgetry from iPods to ICBMs and that China, with a lock on the supply outside of Peru, wielded the minerals as a weapon in international diplomacy. The discoveries in Peru promised to change that, but several of Koenig’s associates had partnered with a Chinese firm and made a tender offer on the land that held the deposits. Pundits claimed that the associates were proxies for Koenig. That made him, and his purchase of Colorado Land and Cattle Company, scandalous across the state.

If the woman had been in Colorado for a few days, she probably knew all this. And she wouldn’t be happy to learn that her temporary caretaker was on Koenig’s payroll. Alex didn’t know why he cared that she might think poorly of him because of his employer, but he did.

“The guy’s just a businessman,” he said. “Your kid eat solid food?”

“If it is soft.”

“Dried venison is anything but soft. You’ll have to chew it and pass it on. Not real appetizing, but it’s all I’ve got.” He pointed to the little camp stove. Its flame, reflecting off the Mylar curtain, pasted a blue halo on the gray-rock rear wall of their shelter. “Fire’s good for another hour. Half that if we want fuel for morning coffee.”

She would be wondering why he didn’t offer to contact someone and let them know she was okay. Just telling her he couldn’t get a signal wouldn’t work. He’d have to show her. He pulled the phone from his backpack and flipped open its cover. “You’d better call someone, so they don’t send out a search team.”

“There is nobody.” The suggestion of a frown crinkled the woman’s forehead. “Not until tomorrow.”


“I was supposed to drive to Silver Hill Ski Resort in the morning. I decided to come early but did not tell anyone.”

Alex grunted his disapproval and pushed the phone back into his pack. “Probably couldn’t get a signal among these rocks anyway. When the wind eases off, I’ll hike up on the ridge and make a call.”

“I am sorry to have caused trouble for you, but I thank you for this shelter. My name is Pia Ulmer.” She caressed the baby’s head. “My son is Frederico.”

“I’m Alex Bryson.” He shifted to a more comfortable position, still careful to keep the scarred side of his face turned away. “Your accent—where’re you from?”

“I am from Colombia.”

“Long way from home.” He waited for her to volunteer something more. She didn’t, so he nodded toward the baby, who sat on the sleeping bag, sucking his pacifier and playing with the rattle she had given him. “His dad gonna worry?”

“We are not together.”

Alex thought again about Flanagan’s warning but dismissed it. How could a young mother, unarmed and lost in a snowstorm with her child and with no means of communication, pose a threat? He pulled his spare shirt and thermal undershirt from his backpack, stuffed the shirt inside the undershirt, and rolled it tightly. “Pillow,” he said, and handed it to her.

“Thank you.” She settled down in the sleeping bag, cuddled the baby in beside her, and began to nurse him. The bag covered her, but the certain knowledge that she had bared a breast for the baby sent embarrassment flooding through Alex. He concentrated on dislodging snow that had caked between cleats on his boots. Then he pretended to look for something in his backpack, keeping himself occupied until he felt more awkward deliberately facing away than watching.

“How about you?” he asked. “Hungry?”

“A little.”

He pulled slender strips of dried venison from his backpack and passed one to her. “You break off bits and worry them around in your mouth ’til they get soft enough to chew.”

“Thank you.”

“What brings you to the U.S.?”

Another momentary hesitation. “I am with my employer.”

She was on a job assignment and dragged her kid along? It seemed strange, but a boss willing to fly her up from South America would probably spring for babysitting when she needed it.

She shifted the baby to her other breast and began working on a bite of the leather-like venison jerky. After a few minutes, she reached for the diaper bag and pulled out the jar of strained pears. “Do you have a spoon?”

“Yeah, let me see that.” Alex twisted the lid off the jar and handed it back along with his aluminum spoon. “You said you’re headed for Silver Hill. Meeting this employer there?”

She separated the baby from her breast, hefted him to a sitting position, and straightened her clothing under the cover of the sleeping bag. “I was trying to . . . yes, he will be there.” Propping herself up on an elbow, she began spooning strained pears into the baby’s mouth.

She and the kid’s daddy were not together, the weekend was coming up, and she was meeting her boss at a resort. Not Alex’s business, but it explained a lot. “The wind will ease off by morning. Our helicopter can drop you in the lodge’s parking lot.”

She wiped pear-streaked spittle off the baby’s chin and, with a deep sigh, settled back on the makeshift pillow to cuddle him. Within minutes, she fell asleep. The kid squirmed for another minute and also drifted off.

As added protection against the overnight chill, Alex pulled on his spare trousers and a second pair of thermal socks, cinched his parka’s hood so only his face was exposed, and slipped the thermal shells on over his gloves. Before extinguishing the little camp stove, he gave himself another minute to admire Pia’s face.

Slender, and at most a couple of inches over five feet tall, she was enticingly feminine. Not a classic beauty, but pretty, with prominent cheekbones, full lips, and a complexion that needed no cosmetics.

But it wasn’t just her appearance. Something about—she shifted in her sleep, and her thigh bumped his. Her proximity and her fragrance made his body tingle.

From Colombia, she’d said. While in Peru with Army Special Forces hunting guerillas near the Colombian border, Alex had learned that well over half of that country’s population was mixed Spanish and Native American. That accounted for Pia’s dark eyes and hair and her maple-sugar complexion, but not for her name.

He snuffed the stove’s flame and stretched out on the Mylar floor to wait for sleep. Instead of shutting down, however, his mind focused on the woman. His eyes grew heavy, but sleep took a long time coming. When it did, his dream put him on a barren, snow-covered hill swathed in daytime fog that reduced visibility to the length of a late-afternoon shadow. An injured animal’s plaintive whine came to him from somewhere in the fog. Without snowshoes or skis, he trudged knee-deep through snowdrifts, plowing his way toward it.

A canine form materialized: a she-wolf. Near starved, she stood with an injured front paw curled under. A pup reared on its hind legs under her belly, worrying a nipple that Alex sensed delivered no milk. The wolf tensed and snarled. She refused to give ground as Alex worked his way toward her. Her eyes, human-shaped and too big for her face, held him entranced. He fished the last of his venison jerky from his backpack, laid the dried meat in the snow, and backed away.

Snarling all the while, the wolf advanced without taking her eyes off him. She ate the jerky with a delicacy that surprised him. When it was gone, she stared at him as if waiting to see what would happen next.

He squatted in the snow and held out both hands. “That’s all I have, girl. We’ll both have to go without.”

Still dragging the pup, which refused to relinquish the nipple, the wolf eased closer. Alternately snarling and sniffing, she advanced until her nose brushed his face. She licked, and ecstasy weakened him so that he could barely maintain his footing in the snow.

He awakened and realized he had ejaculated. He dug fresh underwear from his backpack and changed hurriedly to minimize exposure to the cold.

*   *   *

The Mylar curtain that sheltered Alex and his overnight charges also filtered out much of the morning light. Accustomed to being roused by the sun, he slept late. When he awoke, Pia and her baby were still asleep.

Snow had drifted against the Mylar. He burrowed through and stood to stretch sleep-cramped muscles. The wind had stilled, but frigid air made the scar tissue on his cheek itch. Brilliant sunlight reflecting off an unbroken blanket of white hurt his eyes.

With a cloudless sky and calm air, he would have no trouble getting Pia and her kid airlifted out. A good thing; as much as he enjoyed their company, he didn’t need the distraction. Being booted from the Army had left him broke and homeless until the ex-commander of his old Special Forces company pulled strings to land him this job. Self-pitying and pissed off at the world, he’d gotten off to a bad start. He didn’t want to let Captain Faust down by getting himself canned.

Maximillian Koenig was visiting Silver Hill, surveying his domain. Alex wondered if Faust, who had left the Army and was now Variant Corporation’s director of security and intelligence, would be with him. Probably not. Though Koenig undoubtedly traveled with a personal security force, he wouldn’t drag along his corporate top cop.

Shrugging away the speculation, Alex crunched several feet through the snow and relieved himself against a rock. He crawled back into the shelter and found Pia diapering her baby. She once again wore her lightweight pants. The borrowed thermal underwear lay neatly folded on his sleeping bag. She asked him to watch the baby and wriggled through the snowy tunnel to the outside.

During his early teens, Alex had earned pocket money as a sitter for a neighbor’s kid, so he was comfortable with his temporary assignment. He knelt on the sleeping bag where the baby sat. “Get a load of this, Freddy.” He pulled back his sleeve to expose his wristwatch and tripped its chimes. The baby seemed fascinated, so Alex triggered the chimes over and over until Pia returned, shivering and hugging her thin coat about her.

Alex slipped off his down-filled parka. “Your clothes are way too light.” He wrapped the parka around her.

“Thank you.” Another shiver wracked her. “I believe I shall never be warm again.” She sat on the sleeping bag and pulled the baby onto her lap. By tickling the kid’s chin, she coaxed a grin from him.

Alex lit the remnant of the portable stove’s fuel. “Have us some coffee in a few minutes.” He heated water in the big aluminum cup that clipped onto his canteen holder and served as a multipurpose cooking, drinking, and eating utensil. “Hate to see you guys leave,” he said as he worked. “You’re good company.”

Pia smiled. “I also regret that our acquaintance must be brief.”

He liked what the smile did to her face. Still careful to keep his damaged left profile turned away from her, and feeling stupid about the implied vanity, he passed her a strip of dried venison jerky.

“Thank you.” She chewed the dried meat and fed saliva-softened bites to the baby.

He had been without a woman way too long, Alex decided as he watched her fingers slide between her lips to extract a chewed morsel and push it into the baby’s mouth. The process struck him as intensely sensual.

“Have another one,” he said. Steeling himself for her reaction, he shifted so she couldn’t miss seeing the scar as he passed his last strip of jerky to her.

She accepted it, stared for a moment at his scarred cheek, and winced. “Did that hurt terribly?”

“Didn’t even know I was hit.” He thumbed the scar, and battle memories popped in his head like flashbulbs. With a severed tendon in his calf, Captain Faust had been unable to walk. Alex held the captain in a fireman’s carry and dogtrotted through the jungle. He felt liquid oozing onto his neck, touched it, and looked at his hand: blood. His face was numb, as if he’d received a giant Novocain shot. Exploring fingers touched bone and a sliver of shrapnel that had lodged in his jaw. The hot metal had cauterized the wound. “The pain came later.”

“Does it bother you now?”

“Itches in cold weather.” He mixed powdered coffee into the heated water and offered it to her. They passed it back and forth in companionable silence until the cup was empty. “Time to call the chopper.” He dipped into his backpack to retrieve his phone.

It wasn’t there.


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