By N. D. Farmer
Edward Draven slid to a stop halfway down the slope. The mountain laid out a natural obstacle course ahead of him, offering a line of trees, shrubbery, and bends challenging experienced skiers. Below the mountain lay more rolling white hills and tucked away private cabins dotting the Blue Ridge landscape.
Edward wasn’t sure if his nerves or the multiple layers of clothing he wore caused him to feel a bit too warm. Sweat pressed his t-shirt close to his skin and made the back of his sweater damp. The chilled wind blew ice into his beard, creating sparkles in the red-brown hair. He was grateful to have grown the hair out. It protected the delicate skin and altered his appearance. Fortunately, the beard made him look intimidating.
All things he was painfully not. Certainly not dangerous. To them, he was benign. Harmless. No one would ever suspect him of being what he truly was.
He didn’t need to search undiscovered caves or trek into an uncharted country to find the secret treasures of long-forgotten civilizations. So, why would he want to do all of that awful, arduous work? He hung around the museum and learned about their exhibits. He convinced the curator he was an expert to gain access to the world’s most precious hidden treasures.
“The Eye of Ishtar,” said the curator. He proudly held the opaque, milky gem reverently into the light. “It was believed to be the very stone that adorned the Queen of Heaven’s crown. The gem is of mythical origins. They say whoever possesses it will have the power over life and death.”
“Sounds intriguing,” Edward said, studying the curator’s demeanor and movements. The curator kept the master keys in the left pocket of his blazer while his access card was stashed in his right breast.
“It will be displayed for all to see in our summer exhibit. I trust you will lead the research team on this project, yes?”
Edward nodded with a smile. “Of course. The collection will be in excellent and careful hands.”
And it would be. He was sure after exchanging the jewel for eight million dollars, whoever owned it would take great care, possibly better than the museum.
The sound of something slicing through the snow caught Edward’s ear. Distantly, he heard a guttural muffled scream. Heading down the hill fast was a person clearly out of control. He lifted his foot from the snow but found it stuck. The more he tried to pry himself from the slush, the more it sucked at his skis, holding him in place. The screams grew louder.
Arms flailed wildly. Off balanced.
The screaming came closer, rushing cold and terrified right into–
The impact dislodged his feet and twisted him face-first into the ice. The other skier tumbled further down the embankment, a mix of black rental skis, pink and blue outerwear, and a cloud of white.
The body came to a stop just before toppling over the cliff. It lay motionless in the snow, like a ball of crumpled party paper. Edward got to his feet and rushed towards the body. He fell next to it, then ripped off a glove. He reached down between the folds of the snowsuit, exploring the warm, sweating skin to feel for a pulse. He assumed the body was female from the scent wafting from inside the coat. His icy touch released a moan from beneath the ice.
The woman pushed herself up anyway and turned over. Behind her goggles, he could see she was disoriented. A minor cut on her lower lip spilled a sliver of blood over her chin.
“Are you okay?” Edward could barely speak the words.
The woman moved her right leg, then let out a yowl. Her hands shot to the lower leg towards her ankle.
The woman nodded emphatically and clutched just above her boot. Edward frowned, realizing her medical emergency immediately.
“I’ll have to call for help. You need to get back to the lodge.”
No sooner were the words out did he remember the lodge attendant’s warning just before he left to ski.
If you decide to ski off-piste, you assume all risks and liability for any accidents that may occur while participating in high-risk activities. Unless you keep close communication with our patrol, it could be awhile for someone to find you if you have an accident… Sign here.
Edward slipped the phone back into his pocket.
“What are you doing?”
“We’re nowhere near any location markers. It could be awhile before someone finds us. It might be better to get you back up the hill and back to the trails. From there, I could probably signal for help.” Edward stood and looked over the terrain.
“How will you get us up the hill? It’s such a long way.”
Edward looked down at the woman, judging her weight and whether he could carry her. Calling the ski patrol would negate his attempt to remain anonymous. If they came, a report would be made with names and identities. Evidence.
It was risky. Too risky.
The air grew colder, promising more snowfall. The woman shivered as she massaged her leg and looked desperate for relief. The hour was already passed. It would take another hour to make it to the lodge.
He could just leave her…
The woman continued to sit in the snow. Edward leaned down and gathered snow into small bricks. He then reached for the laces of her boot and loosened them.
“What are you doing?”
“We need to pack your ankle with some ice,” Edward explained as he opened the boot just enough to expose a thermal sock. “The cold will reduce the swelling and help numb the foot enough to make it up the hill.”
“What if it’s broken?”
“The boot will keep it in place until we can get you to the lodge.”
After packing the sides of the boot with snow, he re-tied the boot, wrapping the laces securely around the leg. The woman yelped again as he yanked the laces tight.
“Wow, that’s cold!”
“Trust me, you’ll definitely appreciate the ice.” Edward removed one of her skis and wrapped an arm around her midsection. “Put your weight on me and try to keep your foot out of the way.”
The woman nodded.
Edward drew in a breath and hoisted the woman up to her one foot. They wobbled a moment before regaining balance. He handed the woman one of her ski poles and crossed his two into an X formation. Then, grasping the intersection of the poles, he used them to secure his footing and anchor them both in the packed snow.
“Okay, we’re going to have to do this like a three-legged race. Have you ever played that as a kid?”
The woman nodded, panting.
“I’ll start by moving my foot forward. Then, you move your pole with my foot when I do that. Got it?”
“Okay. Here we go… By the way… What’s your name?”
“Valerie,” she answered.
“Pleased to meet you… Can we get up the mountain now?”
“Right… Right away…”
They made it to the summit after two hours of sweaty, arduous work, frequent rests, and checks on Valerie’s condition. Edward looked over the empty landscape.
“There’s nobody out here,” said Valerie, peering down at the deserted slope.
“This is part of the main lanes,” he thought aloud. “Ski patrol usually comes by every few minutes. I can put up a signal for them to come to rescue you.”
“You’re leaving me up here?” Valerie looked both shocked and angered.
“It won’t take long,” Edward tried to ease Valerie’s anxiety. “I’ll call in your location, and they will come by. You’re back on the main lanes, so it should be easy to find you.”
“You can’t leave me here! It’s just a little further to the lifts. You can take me there, and I can ride back to the platform at the main dock. It’s not that far.”
Edward dialed the number for the ski patrol and waited. The phone buzzed hopelessly before ending in a message.
“You have reached the Appalachian Ski Mountain Emergency Hotline. All available units are currently assisting other calls. Please leave your name, contact information, and location marker at the sound of the tone, and someone will be at your location soon… Beep…”
Edward stared at the phone.
“It’s a voice message…”
“Maybe we should try to make it to the lifts,” Valerie suggested. “It’s obvious they haven’t come out here in a while and may not plan to. It could be hours before anyone shows up to come to get me. I can’t sit in the snow that long. I have to get to a doctor.”
Edward considered his phone and the message again, then looked over the hillside.
“It’s gonna take another hour or more to make it to the lifts below,” he surmised.
“I’m hurt, Edward. Please help me. I can’t get down there by myself. I need you to help get me onto the chairlift, at least. Then you can return to what you were doing before I crashed into you.”
Edward looked at his watch again. He couldn’t be late for his meeting with the buyer. It was his only chance to unload the stolen artifact and get away from anything that could tie him to it physically. He risked everything to get to this point. He couldn’t blow it now. Not after all the planning and scheming he had done just to get to the mountain.
“I’m sure it won’t take—“
“Edward! Please! Have mercy!”
“This isn’t my fault! And it’s not my problem!”
Edward began removing his skis to put them in an X formation, signaling anyone that would see there was an emergency. It would take longer to get down from the hill in just his boots. Still, he could manage it a lot faster than carrying the injured woman off the slope. Although she was gorgeous, and he would have certainly enjoyed staying with her, he couldn’t afford the luxury. Were it any other circumstance, he doubted she would give him a second glance. She only wanted him there with her because she didn’t want to be alone. As soon as she was on the lift and sailing back towards the lodge, she would forget about him and their fluke accident. She would spend the next few hours wrapped in warm blankets, cradling a hot cup of cocoa in her hands, and high off pain medication. Later, she would regale her equally exotic friends about how she broke her ankle and the sleaze-ball that left her in the snow. She would probably paint him in the most irredeemable light possible to make him look like the real cause of her misfortune…
Edward turned back to Valerie.
“I’ll help you to the lifts, but that’s it. I really have to go after that.”
A broad smile lifted Valerie’s spirits. She began thanking him profusely, making promises to make it up to him somehow, even offering to take him out for a coffee after she was released from the hospital. Edward shook his head against his own screaming wishes. By the time she left the hospital, he would be in the air heading to Cancun or Cuba.
“I’ll help you down, but that’s it. Once you’re on, I’m gone.” Edward didn’t mean to sound so disappointed, but he didn’t want to hide the truth.
“I know,” said Valerie resolutely. The smile on her face was a little unnerving. “You’re not staying at the lodge, are you? You’re staying someplace else. Someplace private.”
“What makes you think that?” Edward was curious. “I could be staying at the lodge.”
Valerie shrugged. “But you’re not. You wouldn’t. Not for what you came to do.”
“You talk like you know me. I assure you. You don’t.”
If she knew what kind of man he actually was, she would choose to go alone. He was already contemplating stealing the silver pendant she wore around her neck. Her winter suit alone must’ve cost a few hundred dollars. Her ski equipment was rented, but all of her effects were hers. If he was a complete cad, he would take every valuable thing off her body and leave her vulnerable on the hill. As lovely as she was, if she caused him to lose the biggest payday he would ever know, he would steal her soul if it was worth something to an interested buyer.
“I don’t know you, Edward,” said Valerie a bit too calmly. “But I know men like you. But, this isn’t really who you are. Not in your soul. It is beautiful. Kind…Honest.”
Edward could not stifle a scoffing laugh from escaping.
“C’mon. Let’s get you down to the lifts….”
Almost an hour passed before the two made it down the hill to the platform to await a chairlift. Finally, after a few minutes, a bench appeared out of the white fog and gracefully descended towards them. Edward grasped the handle, guiding the seat towards Valerie and holding it steady. Valerie half hobbled, half hopped into the chair, and secured the lap belt around her waist. Edward handed her the one surviving pole she used to crutch herself through the snow.
“What about the other ski and pole? Will you go back for it?”
Edward smiled instead and nodded, relaxing Valerie back into her seat.
“How can I thank you for your kindness?”
Edward heard of how women could and sometimes would plead without actually asking to spend time with a man. He never experienced the phenomenon himself. He certainly would not have expected a beautiful creature like this fallen angel to actually beg him to meet up with her later. He couldn’t believe his luck.
He couldn’t believe the timing.
Such awful, dreadful timing…
“Your smile is payment enough,” Edward lied.
Valerie nodded. “Well, I guess this is it, then. If I don’t see you again… Thanks for everything.”
Edward nodded awkwardly. He wanted to say more, maybe even accept her offer for a cup of coffee. After the sale was complete, he would have a little time to remain in the area to secure the artifact in a safe deposit box before boarding a flight. Maybe he could enjoy a coffee then… If there was time.
“You take care of yourself,” Edward said, giving Valerie a warm yet fated grin.
She extended a gloved hand.
“You can be a good man if you wanted to be,” said Valerie with a meaningful look. “You could be an honest man.”
“I could…But what’s the fun in that?” Edward grinned.
“True. I told myself I could ski that mountain. I assumed the risks. But I wasn’t honest with myself, nor was I honest to the instructors who let me go. They told me not to do it, but I went anyway…For fun.”
“I hope you learned something, then.”
At that, Edward watched as Valerie sailed off into the white fog.
This was the moment.
He could barely sit still for the electricity coursing through his veins, sending every nerve in his body on end, waiting.
A knock sounded at the door.
Edward got up. Unlocked the door. Peered out.
Light brown eyes met him along with a pleasant smile.
“What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“I’ve always known where to find you, Edward. I’ve seen you.”
Valerie only smiled in response. She stepped closer to the door, still wearing her pink and blue winter coat. She was not wearing crutches, nor did she appear to be hobbling anymore.
“What happened to your foot? Did they fix it?”
“My foot was never broken. I only said that it was…. And you believed me.”
Edward was confused. When he left Valerie, he was sure she was on her way to the hospital. Now she stood at his door, smiling and looking like nothing happened to her. Why did she lie? Why did she pretend to be hurt?
“To see if there was any good in you,” Valerie responded. “To see you for what you are… A thief… And a liar.”
“What do you mean? I never lied to you.”
“Yes you did,” Valerie accused. “You lied, and you stole. You stole my eye, and now I want it back.”
“Your eye? I don’t have your eye.”
Edward suddenly felt himself growing colder than he had ever felt even while on the mountain. Valerie’s light brown eyes stared unblinkingly… Deep into his soul. His chest pulled in tight, squeezing his thundering heart. He grimaced uncomfortably.
“Return my eye, or face death over and over. Eternally. Your soul to die with your body… forever.”
“I don’t have your eye.” Edward said despite feeling choked from within.
“Still lying. Still greedy.” Valerie raised her chin.
She turned away.
“Is that what this is all about? You want the jewel? Well, I don’t have it. I’ve already sold it.”
She turned and faced him. Suddenly, she raised a hand. Behind Edward, the safety box hidden behind a hanging picture, blew open. The opaque stone flew out and shot past him into Valerie’s extended hand. A strange golden glow encircled her as her eyes burned like flames in a fireplace. Her pleasant smile suddenly turned cruel and malicious.
“You signed the waiver. You assumed the cost of your high-risk plan. If you cannot return my eye, I will return you to the death you should have had.”
Valerie snapped her fingers.
Edward was once more in the cold, skiing fast down the mountain.
Trees whizzed past.
His screams bellowed into the air.
The edge of the mountain drew close.
The horizon opened out, welcoming him into the white fog.
And then… below…