Despite the difficulty she had anticipated and the fact that she had waited several days so that she could devote herself to an extended conversation, the answers Elle was looking for only took twenty minutes to acquire. It was merely a matter of finding the correct telephone number, which in this case, had been on the contact page of their website. And for the first time in an admittedly long time, they confirmed her worst fears. SCA had not assigned one John A Marshall to any internship in the world, most especially not one in Arizona to fight fires. They did have his application on file, however, which had been accessed a month ago. But it had not been modified in over a year. So there it was, in black and white. Her little brother had gone AWOL.
In the shock that followed, Elle considered calling home, to let her parents know she was coming. But she decided against it. Better to let them have one more pleasant afternoon. And her? She clearly wasn’t going into her shift tonight. But strangely enough, she didn’t feel angry. No. This went way beyond angry. It was fear. Genuine fear. Because if SCA didn’t know where her brother was, who did? She would have to get creative.
Setting the receiver of the telephone down, she went over to the closet and took out her duffel bag, the room turning around her so quickly, she couldn’t focus on anything. Looking down at her bag, she took a deep breath and collected her thoughts. She was going to find her little brother. And then she was going to kill him.
Through the black and silver Skullcandy cans, the whole world was Gwen Stefani. What You Waiting For? to be precise. And as he turned his head and felt the headrest through the grey beanie that was useless without the headphones, John couldn’t help but wonder what Roald Amundson would have thought. Out the window, there was snow again, getting steadily deeper as they got higher in the French countryside. Flurries danced around them, following paths described by Navier-Stokes, and up ahead and to the left, there were the tallest, most ridiculous mountains John had ever seen.
There was such an amazing sense of elevation here. Part of it was the scope of the mountains around them. Part of it was the renewed presence of snow in the summer. Part of it was the sensation of his ears popping. All converged in his subconscious to tell him he was up high and getting steadily higher. And there they were. Three cars, one with rally lights glowing, one SUV, and one sport bike, advancing single file up the French countryside. State of the badass art.
They had been driving for five long hours, and it was already mid-afternoon. They needed to go faster if they were going to make it before it got dark and cold. The Volkswagen was going full steam ahead, while the Peugeot was just doing all right with its lower traction. The road became clear briefly and John bet Viktor was relishing the extra friction. Not that you could tell. His outer visor was down. He was dressed in a coat and heavy-looking pants.
Up ahead, the resort, located partway up a mountain, was incredibly expensive, which was inconvenient, but not the end of the world. Pulling under an awning, they looked it over. It was ginormous, ten stories tall, façade polished gray metal. It also extended at least fifty yards down its long axis and its central portion, where there was a long row of windows stretching from one side to the other, was taller than the rest of the building. That might have been where the pool was.
All along the side, there were rectangular windows, some with shades drawn, others completely open. From the parking lot, they were able to make out a much smaller building marked with a white cross, with smoke curling out of a chimney. Behind that was the aerodynamic form of an AS350BB Eurocopter Ecureuil rescue helicopter. It was painted yellow, except for its skids, and rested in the exact center of a concrete square. Sitting there immobile on the tarmac, John couldn’t help but think it looked pretty pitiful, its three rotors hanging motionless.
The parking lot was very big. But he still wasn’t sure if their plan to sleep in the cars would work. No, probably not. Shit. Well they would have to go with plan B then. As they debated it, the prospect made him shudder. The matter unresolved, they got out of the cars, leaving their gear behind, and wearing their warmest clothes, walked towards the resort. The first thing they did was walk around the back, casting inquisitive glances at the medical facility and its accompanying helicopter. A light breeze blew by and the chopper’s blades wobbled. Their own helicopter. It seemed appropriate. The website had described a facility fit for a king, with mention of a conference room, a sauna, a two level restaurant looking out at the countryside, a day care center, an outdoor swimming pool, a smoking room, a gift shop, and of course, abundant rooms for spending the night.
They walked on. A cable car rested on the snow at the middle rear of the structure, passengers filing into it from the opposite side, carrying snowboards and skis. It took several minutes to approach it. One moment it was motionless and the next, quite suddenly, the whole thing lifted off the ground and rose towards the mountain. John turned his head to watch it go. It dwindled into the distance. “Wow,” he said, feet sinking into the snow. Soon, they reached the cable car loading area, where there was now an empty concrete platform. There was a big glass window there and there were doors with brass handles.
Above them, metal cables glided towards and away from the mountainside. They continued on. A few rear exits. A discrete loading dock on the other end. This they paused at for a few moments and then walked past. This brought them back to the front of the resort. Walking to the entrance, they went inside. The lobby of the resort was amply lit by natural lighting, courtesy of large glass windows. There was a big wooden desk behind which was a young man in a suit who looked at them, and whom they walked past without so much as nodding. The sooner he forgot he’d ever seen them, the better.
Through a bottleneck, they arrived at a softly lit corridor. The floor was marble, the walls marked at intervals by small half circular tables with plants on them. The corridor opened up into a vast open space. They had to tilt their heads all the way back to see the top. Remarkable. The entire core of the building was hollow. At the top was a skylight, through which sunlight ricocheted downward, not quite making it all the way, and scattering off the transparent elevators that traveled from the ground level to the top. There was a fountain on their left and a gift shop to their right.
The architecture was strange. It was almost as if the narrow front of the building had been tacked onto the rest of the structure. John craned his neck until it started to hurt. They walked along the lower floor, going everywhere: the gift shop, the exercise room, Venetian blinds half closed, the computer lab, lined with shiny monitors, the apparel store where you could purchase skis and snowboards, and of course, the numerous restaurants of varying class. Very impressive. They checked the door that led into the managerial offices and noted it was unlocked. That would be useful information. They rode the elevator up to the next level, peering down through the octagonal glass lift and arrived with a pleasant chime that John could have sworn said “you’re special.” As they came out onto the second level, where the floor was carpeted, he couldn’t help but start to believe it. The second level had hotel rooms and conference rooms. The hotel rooms were near the outer perimeter.
They took the stairs up to the next level and saw that the layout there was pretty much the same. A floor above that, however, things changed. Instead of conference rooms, there were inward facing hotel rooms. In fact, all the floors were more or less laid out identically, with minor differences here and there, until you reached the ninth floor, where there was a big restaurant off to one side of the building’s forward crest that was accessed from the elevator and hotel rooms by way of an open bridge. The restaurant was high class and linked by a windowed corridor to a large TV lounge. In the corridor were primary colored chairs and sofas which gave a comfortable view of the trees and hills to the west. In the TV lounge there were a bunch of talking thirty-somethings.
They went up to the top level where there was a swimming pool. It was big, like everything else here, warm vapor tendrils hovering over it, and it radiated much more heat than John had expected it would. Finally, there was a hot tub, which rumbled, its gurgles sharing the same alpine air as high pitched voices from the distant ski slopes, themselves perhaps fifteen stories above where they were. It was hard to judge. The sun shone on the pool deck with a mellow intensity. They lingered up there for a little while, enjoying the spectacular view. Finally, they went back down to the ninth floor, examining the large restaurant more closely. They drew straws and Erika snuck into the kitchen spaces, confirming that there was a freight elevator before being shooed out by a senior chef.
The restaurant was large and had two levels. The lower floor was only accessible from a bronze railed spiral staircase and an emergency staircase. Both levels could effectively see each other, though the westernmost end of the lower level was concealed from sight from above. The lower level seemed to be more private. It wasn’t separated by a cord but it might as well have been. There was a bar down there too.
They went into the lounge where the TV’s were currently off. And just sat down, in different corners of the room, chatting about random things, until at last, they felt fully comfortable there. The room was separated from the central cavity by glass doors. As the sun tracked across the walls and furniture, they started noticing new things. There were paintings on the walls. There was a circular chandelier in the ceiling. There were three TV’s. The rug had a rippled pattern. The space seemed to double as a conference room because there was a wooden panel on the wall that had a dark seam around it.
They went back downstairs to the ground floor where there was a square of sofas and discussed the situation. They didn’t rush, just talked, and reaffirmed a few things. Changed others. The foundation of the plan had come from André and John. They had nailed down most of the broad strokes. The people who had given it a reality check were mainly Brian and Cory. Katie and Viktor and Josh had said yes or no, no in the case of the latter. In half an hour, they had it all worked out. And so now they had marching orders. Now it was time to think about getting out of sight. They had noticed that there weren’t any cameras. In the entire resort, they had only seen two cameras, directed in overlapping paths and tucked behind opposite ends of the front desk. But they didn’t want to push their luck and be noticed. So they broke into four groups and went through the lobby into the parking lot.
The first thing they noticed when they got outside was that it had gotten colder since they’d come in. And the sun was blocked by the trees. They were late. They gazed up at the mountain and regarded the illuminated snow sculpture, now a cool yellow. Hurriedly removing their overnight bags, which had the gear they needed, six of them went off towards the resort again. The other two, Viktor and Brian, got to work on their own task, driving Cory’s Subaru out of the parking lot and towards the nearest town.
Fifteen minutes later, the remaining six were riding up towards the mountain in a cable car, which was, to put it bluntly, terrifying. Not that any of them let themselves show it. At least until they reached the three quarters mark and came within about twenty feet of a tall ridge, dangling over it precariously. The cable car rocked gently in a wind gust and they gripped their railings a little tighter. But then it was damped away and they were still rising. The view was spectacular. The landscape behind at least vaguely resembled their home on Earth, pointy trees dwindling into the distance. But up ahead looked like nothing John had ever seen before. The closest approximation his mind could come up with was a polar cap, and in climatological terms, it effectively was. When they reached the top and opened the doors, John was glad he’d put on a real hat.
Now they stood on the glacier, looking down at the lodge. Bags locked around their waists, hiking poles extended, crampons on, they stomped up the mountain. Steadying themselves with their poles, their feet sank in some places and clicked immediately on ice in others. Slowly, they disappeared around a ridge. Now they were invisible. They marched on, blazing a trail up the cold mountainside. It was a long and nervous hike. The snow barely concealed steep rocks, and looking back they knew that if they lost their footing, there was no telling how far down they would slide. Now and then, Katie would pause and assess the route ahead, giving the others a desperately needed break to catch their breaths.
After what must have been an hour, they reached the bald top of the mountain and peered down the other side. Switzerland lay before them in the distance, shadowed for dozens of miles by the mountain’s bulk, the distant horizon dark with lights twinkling. At the top, they took out ropes and large metal spikes. Fingers dying from the cold, they banged those into the rock with their hammers, two per person. Next they ran the ropes through them, tying knots with some difficulty as their fingers lost feeling. When the knots were done, they pulled out their mummy bags, rated for minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, and tied the ropes to them and knotted them. It was close to impossible to do, the pain was such, but they got it done. Finally, taking off their crampons but leaving their jackets on, they slid inside their bags, their bodies inclined at twenty-five degree angles, and pulled the tops closed over their heads.
They got out to pee and stretch from time to time, which wasn’t easy because as it got dark, they didn’t allow themselves to use headlamps. Fortunately, however, there was a full moon.
At one point, John climbed out of his bag and hiked back over the peak of the mountain. It must have been about ten p.m. and the cable car had shut down. The moon hovered over Switzerland behind him. Beneath him was the lodge, an okudagram of rectangular lights arrayed along the face of the silver structure. On top was the distant, cool blue rectangle of the swimming pool. Beyond was France, rendered in a ghostly pallor by the natural satellite behind him. My God, he thought suddenly. My God.