Now in a mass market edition, George D. Shuman’s third riveting thriller featuring Sherry Moore, a blind psychic who can see the final moments of a dead person’s life.
Blind psychic Sherry Moore is summoned to the Caribbean by a mysterious and powerful philanthropist to find the murderous kingpin of a human trafficking network. Frantically searching for clues in the remote jungles of Haiti, she finds a legendary voodoo priest—a man with abilities eerily similar to her own.
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Raw winds hailed lacerating ice, stinging earlobes and ruddy cheeks beneath the climbers' black snow goggles. The storm had an under-growl that suggested it was both alive and malevolent.
It came out of nowhere as polar storms do, the clockwise rotation of Pacific highs meeting counterclockwise Siberian lows, fusing to form a cyclone in ancient cauldrons of granite and glacier. Mountains the size of Denali virtually produce their own weather.
Allison Metcalf descended the headwall below the summit clipped to a fixed line, testing the ice with crampons on the toes of her boots. The well-trod western approach was quickly vanishing under their feet, transmuting into an alien environment of wind-sculpted ice. She took another step and then another, trying to quell the rise of panic. Only three hours ago they had stood on top of the Western Hemisphere. Now they were in a race for their lives to get beneath it.
The spatial world was no more. There were no more ups and downs, no rights or lefts. One could reach out an arm and not see the glove beyond the wrist. If any of the climbers were to unclip from the fixed line, even for a moment, it was doubtful they would find it again; more likely they would wander off the side of the mountain or fall into one of the hundreds of bottomless crevices of prehistoric ice.
"You okay?" Sergio's voice caught faintly on the wind. He was below her, but still close, only a dozen feet away. Was he straggling to look out for her?
"Okay," she yelled, but the words evaporated with a blast of chilled air. She tugged gently on the line tethered between them and a moment later she felt his acknowledgment. It felt good, this tangible connection to another human being.
If they could at least descend to high camp at 17,000 feet, they might survive the night in the uppermost cradle of the summit. The poor buggers above Archdeacon's Tower had yet to negotiate an exposed knife-edged ridge. They would not be so lucky, would not last an hour when the sun dropped below the horizon and windchills plummeted below minus sixty degrees. Allison could not imagine a night of terror in subzero hurricane winds, tethered to four other people in the open, any of whom might panic and make an error fatal for all of them.
Allison had met only two of the other climbers from the teams still up at the summit, both of them women from British Columbia. They'd shared stories of climbs in the Canadian Rockies and a stove for soup this morning as the sun began to rise. One of them was also named Allison. They'd laughed about the chances of that, but now she found that other woman's face etched upon her mind, could not dispel it.
Suddenly Allison's feet went out from under her and she began to backslide, frantically grabbing for the ice ax on her belt. Just before she went head over heels, she wielded the ax two-handed, driving its pick into the side of the mountain to break her fall. She hung there a moment on her side, both arms extended, hanging on to the handle, but then the ax let loose and she began to spiral away, chin raking the ice-sheathed granite until her boots struck something solid.
She tried to blink away the snow that covered her eyes, to see through the hail of white wind, and there was Sergio's purple snowsuit. He wrapped his arms around her waist and put his face to hers and it was cold.
She tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come. Her mouth was filling with warm blood, her eyes welling with tears.
He helped her to stand, neither able to see the other's expression through the dark lenses of their goggles. She put a gloved hand over his heart and held it there and he nodded. Then he gave her his ice ax, turned and pointed down and grabbed the line, descending into the whiteout. Allison nodded as he disappeared. There was no time to reflect.
But Allison did reflect. She had spent last night in Sergio's sleeping bag. It was the first and only time since they had met eight days before in the village of Talkeetna, where solo climbers came to buddy up with summiting teams that he had even spoken more than a dozen words to her. Allison thought him arrogant at first, one of those handsome playboy types with infinite time and money on his hands. She had even goaded him about it on the mountain, trying to provoke a reaction until in an unguarded moment in their tent she saw an unmistakable look of despair on his face. It was then she realized there was more to Sergio than met the eye. He hadn't come to Denali to conquer the mountain. He had come here to run away. But from what a lost love, a failed marriage, some deep incomprehensible disappointment in his life?
They never got to talk about it and perhaps, she thought, they never would.
She remembered his lips pressed to the side of her neck in the cocoon of that sleeping bag last night. He had actually cried after they made love. He did not want to leave the mountain, he'd told her. His warm tears had been wet on her neck; he'd told her he did not want to return to who he was.
Denali National Park
Five Days Later
Harsh sunlight glinted off the big blades of the HH-60 Pave Hawk, creating strobe-like effects inside the helicopter's cargo bay. Captain Metcalf, sitting opposite Sherry Moore, shielded his eyes from the rapid-fire bars of white light deflecting off her snow goggles.
"Glaciers." He leaned toward the edge of her helmet. "We're almost there."
Sherry nodded, her stomach queasy as the craft began to tilt on its side, darting toward the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. Sherry was no stranger to helicopters. She'd spent much of her life being whisked from one place to another, knew the crew seats of the big corporate Bells and Hueys and Sikorskys, even the fleet of luxury VH-3Ds designated Marine One when the president of the United States was on board. But the Pave Hawk was like nothing she had experienced before; it was the difference between riding a flea and a bumblebee.
"Is it clear? The summit?" she asked.
"Blue skies. Hard to take your eyes away," Metcalf said absently. She felt him looking at her just then, knowing he was regretting the offhanded reference to sight.
Her own images of the mountain were formed from books she'd listened to on tape or disk, of blinding white snow and black granite walls, of ice-blue glaciers and bottomless crevices.
"I can imagine," she said softly.
The Alaskans called the mountain by its Indian name, Denali, meaning "the great one," though U.S. geological maps still call it Mount McKinley. It towered four miles above five glaciers, with more vertical face than Mount Everest, high enough to be seen from Anchorage, a hundred and thirty miles away, on a good day.
There were no climbers on the summit of Denali today. No colorful string of snowsuits negotiating the Denali pass or the notorious ridge or the turn called Windy Corner.
All of the climbers known to have survived the storm had been found below 14,000 feet, near basin camp, where National Guard Chinooks were evacuating them as fast as they could assemble.
Above 14,000 feet, conditions were simply indescribable, or, as one Denali ranger told reporters, a wasteland of flash-frozen cornices. Of valleys pitted with hidden fissures wide enough to swallow rescue teams or helicopters.
The storm was the result of a low-pressure system that had inserted itself on the mountain last Sunday, generating what was known as a polar cyclone. The system laid upon Denali for five days, producing a dozen feet of new snow in gusts of wind exceeding 100 miles per hour. The storm virtually resculpted the upper third of the mountain.
Now it was Friday and twelve people were still missing above basin camp. One expedition of four had summited the morning of the storm and was making their way back to high camp when the storm hit. Their last FRS radio transmission before the communications system went down due to the storm was from the Denali pass, 800 feet above high camp. They had every chance of making it then, but five days later they could not be reached, and it was impossible to know where they had finally dug in to weather the storm. It was also unlikely their supplies had been sufficient to sustain them.
Other expeditions, one from Thailand and one from British Columbia, were only nearing the summit when the storm suddenly developed. Their last reports indicated they were going forward, only a few hundred feet to the top, before they would turn around.
The cyclone hadn't been predicted, but that was the nature of Denali. The sheer mass of the mountain created its own weather. Any beautiful morning could end with an afternoon storm and a climbing disaster.
Meteorologists, as always, wasted no time getting their warning out, but those on the upper third of the mountain needed days, not hours to make their descent, and that was under optimal conditions. Anyone above basin camp last Friday was there to stay.
From the television on board the private jet taking Sherry to Alaska, Sherry learned there was little hope for climbers above 16,000 feet. Teams attempting the summit would have cached much of their equipment and food below, leaving them light for the final two-day ascent to the top of the mountain. Which meant that time was their greatest enemy. Even if they managed to reach high camp, there would be little food and fuel for heat, certainly not five days' worth.
The park rangers set up a triage area in the permanent medical station on basin camp, doctors from Anchorage and Fairbanks dividing their attention between cases of frostbite and acute mountain sickness. There was no small number of broken bones too, and a tent was set aside for bodies retrieved from a rescue in the gully below the vertical headwall under Camp 6. Three had fallen to their deaths.
A fourth body, photographed by search planes, was dangling off that headwall by a line wrapped around his boot. He was hanging just below the 16,000-foot mark and his jacket, once bright purple, showed faint lavender under a sheath of heavy ice. Perhaps a carabiner or ascender broke, releasing him to the gale-force winds. Perhaps the winds themselves upended him and tangled the rope around his boot? Whatever the case, exposed to the elements as he was, he managed to make a signal mark with luminescent paint on the granite wall. The mark appeared to look like an arrow pointing upward with a circle on top. He was obviously trying to leave a message. To show rescuers there were survivors above the ledge. By altitude, he could only have been one of the team of four who had radioed they were trying to reach high camp the day the storm set in on the summit of Denali. Apparently they had descended to Camp 6 over the next two days, where they would have had to dig out a snow cave, but where above the ledge and under all that new snow should the rescuers look? Any original sign of a cave would have disappeared an hour after it was built, and finding it now, under new snow, was fairly impossible.
A spokesperson for the National Park Service announced they would not be committing teams to a random search above basin camp. It would pose too great a risk for the people and equipment it would take to get them there. More than a hundred people were on Denali when it hit, all but twelve having had time to descend to the ranger station at basin camp, or they were already below it. But even this group suffered countless casualties.
Landing zones above basin camp could no longer be presumed safe; it was late in the climbing season and glaciers were beginning to fracture, forming bottomless crevices, some as wide as a house. New snow above them presented the constant threat of avalanche and last, but hardly least, another storm was forming off the Bering Strait that would be upon them by midnight, obliterating the mountain in yet another whiteout. Rescue teams made it clear they would make no attempt to search the upper third of the mountain without clear evidence of life. The endeavor was not only risky but would divert badly needed personnel and helicopters already committed to evacuating known survivors. As for the body hanging from the ridge, his team was probably already dead. The marking he had made on the side of the mountain was not a sign of life, they reminded. It was only a sign, and how many days old?
It was all a little hard to digest, Sherry thought. She'd been following news of the disaster on Denali throughout the week. There was a sad recap of the story every evening as the storm prevented rescuers from getting to the mountain. But a mountain in Alaska was far removed in time and place from her living room in Philadelphia. She could not imagine a relationship to it.
Then, this morning, Garland Brigham, her neighbor and best friend, knocked on her door. It was six a.m. He had been awakened by a call from Washington state senator Metcalf. The senator's only daughter, Allison, had been with the team of four believed to have survived the first day of the storm.
There had been a break in the weather. Rescuers were gearing up to reach the survivors. Metcalf wanted to know if Brigham's famous friend would fly to the mountain and attempt to learn if there had been any radio contact between the survivors and his daughter's team before the communications systems went down. Sherry, he said, would be given access to the bodies of the fallen climbers. Could any of them have seen his daughter descending when the storm hit? He was grabbing at straws, Brigham said, and the senator well knew it. Still, it was only two a.m. in Alaska. She could be on Denali before noon if she left right away.
Sherry Moore would do anything for Garland Brigham, even if only to make a demonstration of compassion. By 6:30 a.m. she was in a military police car speeding for Philadelphia International. At 6:50 she climbed the carpeted stairs of a luxury Gulfstream jet and was handed a mug of coffee. She was the only passenger flying at .85 mach across the country.
She knew from what Brigham had told her that the rescuers had daylight in their favor. The Alaskan sun wouldn't set until midnight, providing nineteen hours of light. She also knew that the senator's son, U.S. Navy SEAL captain Brian Metcalf, would be meeting her in Anchorage, where she would transfer to a privately contracted helicopter from Washington State that would take them to Denali National Park and basin camp.
Sherry had dozed on and off during the flight, listened to cable news on satellite television, and spoken with Brigham by phone several times. He told her that Captain Metcalf had contacted him and wanted to know if she might attempt, with him, to reach a body hanging from a headwall. Metcalf was convinced it was a member of his sister's team. The man had apparently been trying to leave a message with signal dye on the side of the mountain when he died.
It wasn't a request and it didn't require an answer. Brigham was only warning Sherry what to expect when she arrived in Anchorage. But there must have been a conversation between the two men about her physical capabilities. Metcalf would not have raised the possibility of descending a mountainside with a blind woman unless Brigham had assured him that she was in good physical condition. Brigham wouldn't have told Sherry what he thought she should do he never tried to lead her one way or the other but he might have considered it a real option.
One thing she knew with certainty: He wouldn't let her do anything that might compromise her safety. She knew as surely as she knew her own name that if Brigham raised the possibility of such a thing, he had complete confidence in Metcalf's abilities. As for the biological side of it, all Sherry needed was a body intact, with the remnants of a neurological system and an inactive brain, to see a corpse's final seconds of memory. Sherry felt the helicopter getting buffeted in the wind. She knew something about the Pave Hawk: it was a modified version of the army's Black Hawk, seventeen million dollars' worth of technology refitted for rescue work in hostile terrain. It was used not only in the mountainous extremes of Afghanistan but also in civilian rescues like those for Typhoon Chanchu and the Indian Ocean tsunami and Katrina in New Orleans.
There were three other men in the chopper, all navy SEALs, she'd been told, and they were strapped in harnesses on the benches to her right. Sherry's toe struck the duffel bag between them. It would be orange or red or yellow, filled with morphine and oxygen, heat packs and adrenaline syringes, and there would be CO2-charged splints and neck braces and of course disposable body bags. Metcalf might have come to perform a rescue mission, but all rescuers knew that such undertakings often turned into a recovery. She knew Metcalf was thinking about that. Thinking about his sister.
She couldn't quite say how it had happened. One moment she was heading for the relative safety of basin camp to visit the bodies of three dead climbers. The next she was listening to Metcalf's argument for reaching the dead man, and donning heavy snow gear to descend the side of a mountain.
Metcalf was not a man of many words he wasted none explaining their objective but he was nonetheless convincing. She felt confident in his presence, and it was a contagious feeling that continued throughout the mission. She knew now why Brigham had let it get this far. You didn't always need eyes to size up a man. The perception of comportment was not exclusive to people with sight, nor were qualities such as competence and self-assurance. Metcalf was a Navy SEAL and that assumed certain abilities, but there was far more to Metcalf than ability.
The plan was extraordinarily simple, he told her. The pilot of the Pave Hawk would drop them above the headwall at 16,200 feet. Then they would belay off fixed lines already attached to the side of the mountain and rappel 400 feet to where the body was hanging. Recovering the dead climber's body was not an option there was no time for rescue baskets and Metcalf could hardly divide his attention between a blind woman and a dead man once they were down there. But if the dead man had been part of Allison Metcalf's team, Metcalf might be able to make clear the meaning of the message the climber had been trying to write on the side of the wall. If they could decipher it, Metcalf could radio the information to his men up above and they could focus their search accordingly.
Sherry often went into these kinds of situations feeling doubtful. What a person was thinking about in their last few seconds of life was not always what her clients wanted to hear. No one knows the precise moment they will expire and what random thoughts might occupy their short-term memory when they did. This was especially true when death is inevitable but protracted. People preparing themselves for death run the gamut of emotions, all the while searching their mind for visual references of their journey through life.
The man hanging from his boot had surely frozen to death. He was probably thinking about loved ones in the end, most people did, but he might also have been occupied by the technical problems of his situation, how to regain the fixed line on the side of the mountain, how to right himself again.
Even if he could still focus on the message he was trying to leave, Sherry couldn't imagine him producing a mental image that might help them locate a team of climbers buried in a snow cave above them. In fact she could not imagine how he had hoped to find his own way back in a storm of the magnitude that had been described.
It occurred to her that he might never have had the intention of returning. That he might have known he was not coming back, that his message on the wall was an act of extreme selflessness.
"Kahiltna Glacier." The pilot's tinny voice came over the headphones. Metcalf tapped the side of her helmet and Sherry nodded to acknowledge that she'd heard. That her equipment was operating.
She pulled the microphone away from her mouth to speak to Metcalf privately. "You know the admiral?" Brigham had never mentioned Senator Metcalf before. She was aware that Brigham had friends on Capitol Hill, had even overheard a woman at one of those rare gatherings at Brigham's house comment on a birthday card with the presidential seal.
"Mostly by reputation, ma'am."
"Reputation?" she repeated lightly. Sherry had never thought of Brigham in terms of having a reputation.
Metcalf was silent again, even stoic. Except for the brief description of what he'd asked her to do on the side of the ridge, since leaving Anchorage he'd spoken only to his men and always in fewer than three words. He didn't like questions, or so it seemed. He wasn't used to them and they probably made him uncomfortable.
"So you've never met?" Sherry couldn't help herself.
"We've met," Metcalf allowed.
Sherry had always had a nose for people's discomfort. She knew that Metcalf had a lot going through his mind. His sister, alive or dead, was out there somewhere. One could only imagine the stress he must be under. She couldn't help but wonder why he was putting such energy into taking her along with him. It didn't quite fit the manner of the man. Was it Brigham's influence over the captain that had convinced him to meet her? Men like Metcalf would not be happy chauffeuring civilians around in times of crisis. They were far more likely to put faith in training and experience rather than some paranormal exercise. Metcalf just had to be thinking this was a waste of precious time, but then why was he doing it? Was it in deference to his father or the admiral's rank? Had the senator called Brigham or was it the other way around?
Sherry's ability to "see" dated back to an incident in her childhood, an inadvertent gesture of tenderness that linked Sherry to a dead girl's mind, flooding her with images of things that she had never known and could not possibly have seen. For all the skeptics who would follow, none were more critical of her interpretations than Sherry herself, and it wasn't until many years later that she realized she was actually seeing glimpses of memory, the final seconds of a person's life.
Much could be said about Sherry's documented experiences with corpses since then. The press had labeled her paranormal, but Sherry's ability was gaining credibility in the medical community and an impressive list of neurosurgeons and scientists around the world were beginning to draw parallels between Sherry and new research on how human memory is stored.
Each year researchers inched closer to the possibility that Sherry's ability to link short-term memory was based in science, not metaphysics. On paper it made sense. Millions of skin receptors and nerve cells were wired directly through the deceased's central nervous system to the cortex of the brain. If memory was but an encoding of the body's sensory experiences, then why couldn't the right kind of electrical stimulus tap into it? The wiring was in place. The brain was still there, and brains were computers.
She was curious about Metcalf, but not at the expense of alienating him, so she decided to let it lie. The day was half gone. The Alaskan sun would set before midnight. She would do what she came to do and then she would be back on the jet and heading for home. All of this would be behind them.
She heard Metcalf clear his throat. His head was near. He seemed to be leaning in toward her. He surprised her by speaking and this time it was with inflection.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean to be rude."
She hesitated a second. She wanted to get this right. For some unfathomable reason she wanted this man to trust her, to like her, even if he could not believe in her. She couldn't explain why that was. She usually didn't dwell on the misgivings of others, but Metcalf somehow mattered; she wanted to reach him on a personal level and it wasn't going to be easy. It was a little like trying to approach a wild animal, she guessed. It would require the use of round, harmless-sounding words. Say the wrong thing, use the wrong tone, and it was over. But she really wanted to understand Metcalf's relationship with Brigham.
"We met in the Pentagon once and several times at my father's home in Boston. I actually remember him from my teenage years. How about you? Have you known him long?"
"Ten years, a little more," she decided to say.
"So you're close then," Metcalf said. "Friends?"
Sherry smiled. "I can honestly say he has become my best friend, Captain."
Metcalf took a moment to digest that, seeming uncertain about the ground in front of him. When he finally decided to speak, he turned to face Sherry, covered the mike on his headphones so the pilots couldn't hear, and spoke loudly over the din of the engines. "A lot of people would go to hell and back for that man. Myself included."
Sherry was surprised by the emotion in his voice. It clearly wasn't an idle declaration. He really meant it. But what did that mean? Metcalf didn't sound old enough to have served with Brigham; by her estimation he couldn't possibly have been a peer, so what would he know about Brigham to qualify that statement?
"Whatever he told you, about what we have to do up here this afternoon, I want you to know you're in good hands. Nothing bad is going to happen to you, I promise."
Sherry nodded, but she wasn't thinking about the mission anymore.
"He's been retired as long as I've known him, Captain," she said.
"I'm forty-four, Miss Moore. I joined the navy straight out of college. I did three years under the admiral in the Gulf. He was my CO during Desert Shield."
Sherry pulled off her own headphones. "You served together?" she said, surprised.
"He never talked about the Gulf?"
She shook her head. "He never talked about the navy. I always imagined he was a bureaucrat. You know, life behind a desk."
Metcalf was silent again, but now Sherry wanted more.
"He told me he was stateside at the Pentagon." Sherry wanted to keep the conversation moving.
She was losing him. He was getting defensive again.
"He said he pushed papers," Sherry prodded.
Metcalf actually snorted.
"Well, tell me!" she blurted out, and immediately she regretted it.
There was a moment, a crossroads moment. Sherry knew she had either lost him or broken through.
"Did the admiral ever speak of DEVGRU?" he said at last.
Sherry shook her head. "No. What's it mean?"
"It's an acronym for development group. The admiral chaired the special warfare development group in the Pentagon. This was following the First Gulf War."
Sherry's expression was blank. Chaired, she thought, trying not to be cynical. He had probably "chaired" a dozen committees at the rank of admiral, which meant he delegated assignments to rear admirals and subordinate commanders. No big deal about that.
"What's so special about DEVGRU?" she asked.
"Let's just say there was nothing trivial about the kinds of papers he pushed."
"Tell me about DEVGRU. What kind of development..." she began, but Metcalf put a hand on her shoulder, leaning close to keep from being heard by the pilots. "Ma'am, I don't feel comfortable talking about Admiral Brigham behind his back. I was just trying to make conversation."
With that he put the headphones back on and Sherry knew it was over. He wasn't being unpleasant, but he'd reached his limit of conversation.
She sat quietly for a moment. Then she leaned into him, shoulder pressing against his bicep. "Thank you, Captain. I just want you to know I understand that this can't be easy for you. I know how odd you must think it is, my being here. Maybe even a waste of your time."
"Miss Moore," he said, abruptly pulling the headphones away. "I started this day with nineteen hours of daylight and a suggestion from Admiral Brigham that bringing you here was worth every hour doing it. That might not carry a lot of weight in the civilian world, but if Admiral Brigham also suggested you could fly this helicopter to Denali, I'd be strapping in next to you, so you see I do not take the admiral's suggestions lightly. Plan on doing whatever it is you came here to do and have faith that I'll keep you safe while you're doing it. When we get my sister off this mountain, you will have the most grateful man on the planet at your beck and call."
Sherry had to smile, but then she sensed Metcalf wasn't smiling, so she pulled her microphone back in place and shifted nervously in her seat.
There were goose bumps on her arms. Not because she was cold, but from the sheer gravitas of the man. He was, she thought, one of the most intense human beings she had ever met.
The obvious consequence of Metcalf's unwavering belief in Admiral Brigham's word was to assume an unwavering belief of his own. A belief, though he knew nothing independently about her, that she was capable of assisting them by doing something a reasonable person might think impossible. It wasn't logical by any stretch of the imagination. Faith wasn't a transferable entity when it came to matters of life and death. And rappelling off the face of a mountain with an inexperienced climber who was also blind was in itself a matter of life and death.
What was she getting involved in here? she wondered. And what kind of men were these who would stake their lives on the word of a long-retired superior? Why did she suddenly feel the ponderous weight of responsibility? As if she had a stake in saving this team lost on the mountain. She was becoming one of them. No longer a one-person show, but part of a unit going on a mission. Suddenly she needed Metcalf to know that she wasn't infallible. Any thinking person should know that, but Brigham had said something to him and now Metcalf was long past doubting her abilities, if ever he did.
This didn't remotely correspond to Sherry's experiences in the civilian world. Life for Sherry was a daily quagmire of uncertainty. Every year brought some new form of attack on what she did. Lawyers everywhere seemed bent on testing her right to practice what most people would call clairvoyance. It wasn't clairvoyance, of course, not by a long shot. But instead of science making her more credible, it seemed only to make her a more desirable target, at least in the eyes of the legal world. Suddenly there was something they could point to. A tangible concern was at stake. If she wasn't trying to defraud the public and was actually reading dead people's memories, then the law had better get out there and regulate dead people's memories, too. Someone had better ensure that the rights of the dead were protected. Or at least that's what the lawyers were trying to get on record in a courtroom. Sherry found herself having to hire lawyers to protect her from lawyers.
This was a refreshing change, she thought, men and women who spoke plain English. A group of people who believed that lies and strategies had two different meanings.
She had learned about this phenomenon of blue or green love, whatever you called the brotherhood of arms, from her late friend Philadelphia police detective John Payne. But Metcalf took the concept of esprit de corps to a whole new level. It had only been necessary for Admiral Brigham to say it was possible for him to believe in her that was all Metcalf needed, another man's word. It was mind-boggling.
The Pave Hawk began to descend into updraft turbulence. The metal floors hammered under her feet and she felt herself tense, fingers clutching the bottom of her seat.
Metcalf was moving around the bay, organizing things for their departure, or so she imagined. She tried for the second or perhaps third time to guess what he might look like, knowing that voices could easily fool you. Usually Sherry put an approximate face on casual acquaintances and that was good enough. Sherry assigned variations of speech and manner certain physical characteristics and had no doubt they were well off their mark. Not that it mattered. Face recognition was not part of Sherry's world. She was at liberty to imagine anything she liked about the people she came in contact with infrequently. When she did become close with someone, she cared more about his or her physical reality. When she became very close, she looked at his or her face with her hands. For some unfathomable reason she wanted to see Metcalf's face.
He was a big man. That much was obvious from the physical contact she'd had with him, especially in the limited constraints of the helicopter's cargo bay. His chin, she thought, would be dimpled and square. His hair she imagined dark and buzzed across the scalp, his eyes were kind and blue, but for no other reason than...Suddenly she stopped, realizing she was fantasizing, and fantasizing was something Sherry Moore did not do.
"How high are we?" She spoke quickly into the headset.
"Just above sixteen thousand," the pilot said. "We'll be putting you down in a minute."
"You've done this before?" Sherry joked.
The craft began to make an arc. She could feel the tail coming around on its axis.
"Once or twice," the pilot said dryly.
Sherry hoped he was smiling, too.
"How many people climb Denali?" she asked, trying to keep her mind off the descent.
"About twelve hundred a year," the pilot said.
"Most make it to the top?"
"Am I distracting you?"
"Not in the least."
"Five or six a year. Fifty or sixty too broken to come back and try it again."
"How long does it take?"
"Fifteen to twenty days on average, but Denali can be a cakewalk or it can be hell. No one walks into a storm on purpose."
"It's impressive," she said, "that people can do such things."
"You know there have been blind climbers on the summit?"
"I've heard," she said.
And she had. Ever since reading about Erik Weihenmayer's summit of Everest in 2001 she'd become interested in the sport. Weihenmayer had gone on to become both a world-class climber and an athlete after losing his sight at age thirteen. He had told his interviewers after Everest that summiting was far more than a spiritual quest. Erik liked the feel of hard rock under his hands. He liked the technical challenges. He liked, he told reporters, to surround himself with competent people, the kind of people who would make him a better human being.
You didn't have to think long on that. To be blind was not a choice. How to live and the kind of people you determined to follow was.
There was some excited radio traffic over a cockpit speaker about an airlift off the Muldrow Glacier. Something was wrong with the lift arm of a rescue sling.
"Down there?" the pilot said.
Sherry felt Metcalf lean forward. She imagined him looking out a window in the door.
"You can work with that?" Metcalf asked.
"I can get you down," the pilot allowed.
Suddenly the vibrations in the floorboard smoothed out and the Pave Hawk began to move laterally, approaching the top of the ridge.
"I never saw anything like it," the pilot said.
"The ice?" Metcalf asked.
"I've been flying this mountain for fifteen years and it's never looked like this."
"Tell me," Sherry insisted.
"Everything's glazed over. Like ocean waves frozen midbreak."
She saw the surf breaking in her mind's eye, a memory from her childhood in Wildwood, New Jersey, before the incident that took her sight at age five. Bluish white and elegantly curved, they would be dangerous for the rescuers to cross, she knew. This was not a place for amateurs, not a place for mistakes, and she thought once more that she was a potential liability to this man who was relying on her to save his sister. Once again she felt the obligation to qualify herself. She didn't want to endanger anyone who was trying to get her down the side of a mountain unless he was very clear about her limitations. In spite of Brigham's confidence in her ability, there were real-life issues to consider, the least being common sense and logic. What were the real possibilities that a man hanging upside down in a whiteout below the ridge would be lucid in the last few seconds of his life?
She pulled the microphone away from her face. "Captain Metcalf, I don't know what Admiral Brigham told you about me, but there are things I cannot do. I'm not a mind reader. I can only see what people were thinking about a few seconds before they died. I'm not always able to see anything relevant."
"I know what you do," Metcalf said evenly, "and what I need when we get down there is for you to tell me what you see. I don't care if you think it's trivial, I don't care if it makes sense to you or not. Don't filter it. Tell me everything he was thinking about."
Sherry nodded, but she clearly didn't understand. How could this navy captain be so certain this would work?
"How long do we have?" Metcalf asked the pilot.
"Eight hours, maybe a little more." The pilot tapped his watch. "I'll get a refuel and wait to hear from you at basin camp.
"You and your men will have until twenty-one thirty, but then we've got to fly," the pilot continued. "That's when the window starts to come down."
Sherry flipped open the hinged face of her watch. It was just after one p.m.
"Copy that, twenty-one thirty hours," Metcalf said to his men.
Sherry could hear a change in the engine's pitch.
"Suit up," Metcalf told her. "We'll be out in a minute."
Sherry zipped her jacket to her neck and Velcroed the collar, slipped on her two pairs of glove liners, then allowed Metcalf to push on the heavy snow gloves. Her ice boots were already biting into her shins.
The helicopter thumped on hard-packed snow, lifted several inches, and spun a ninety-degree arc with skids scraping ice.
The pilot hovered the craft there, keeping its full weight off the snow. The door opened and the machine rocked as a blast of cold filled the cabin. Howling winds forced them to yell to be heard.
Metcalf took her hand and tugged before they jumped into the snow.
"Brace yourself between steps," he yelled. "Imagine that you are walking in water, feet wide apart, and do not let go of the rope."
She took a wide stance. Feet apart and awkwardly testing the snow, she moved one foot then the other, crampons slicing noisily through the crust of ice.
"It's going to be hard going until we reach the edge of the ridge."
She nodded and he slipped a harness around her back and snapped it off at her waist. "Don't want you sliding off the edge of the mountain on your back."
Sherry, who couldn't have agreed more, said nothing.
The going would be twice as slow because of her. An experienced climber would have made the descent in half the time. But getting to the body was only part of the ordeal. The minute they were finished with the body, they needed to contact the search team above and get back up to the ledge. Metcalf would be bearing much of her body weight on the ascent. She couldn't imagine the complexities of what it took to do that, but her job was to maintain balance and concentrate on what she came to do. He would take care of the rest.
"Sandstorm, this is North Sickle One," he said, making a radio check to his men. "Do you copy?"
Sherry heard a voice come over the air. "North Sickle, you are loud and clear, over."
Metcalf tapped Sherry's arm gently as they began to approach the ledge. "We're going to clip to cleats and rappel off the ridge. One of my men will keep safety lines on us until we're over the wall, then we'll fasten onto the fixed line. Use the toes of your boots. You'll get used to them quick."
Sherry nodded, wondering what she'd let herself in for this time. It would have been an understatement to allow that she had spirit she did and she'd been in some pretty unusual places before, like belly down on the front line of an equatorial civil war or compressed into a metal cage and lowered into a coal mine. But Sherry did not consider herself to be reckless or an adrenaline junkie. She might have overcome the fear of not being able to see, but she respected life and feared whatever a prudent person might fear. She had no death wish.
Step by step, they lowered themselves. Crampon by crampon, their boots dug into the mountainside, negotiating toeholds that were beaded with ice, rounded corners of slick granite smooth as glass, the wind bumping them on the lines as they were carefully lowered, but at last they were under the ridge and Metcalf clipped them to the wall. Then they began the slow descent down the face of granite. It took almost an hour to reach the body and when they did, Metcalf went silently to work, chipping away at the heavy cast of ice around the dead climber's arm.
The experience had been like nothing Sherry had ever known. It was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, the physical challenges of identifying foot- and handholds on a brittle wall of ice, the nearly intoxicating rewards of personal achievement. This was nature and self-awareness at the extreme.
Metcalf's immediate concern was clearing the corpse's hand of ice and getting Sherry situated next to the body, making sure she was comfortable enough on her lines so she could forget about her physical situation and focus on what she came to do. Metcalf kept chipping away with the butt of his survival knife at the man's glove, which was hanging below his body. Once it was clear, he used a chemical pack to thaw and remove it. It took fifteen minutes before he was guiding Sherry into position alongside the inverted corpse.
Removing her own glove was tedious, but at last it was off, and she gently exercised her stiff fingers. Once more she thought about how the climber's end must have come. He would have tried to upright himself several times before the effort became too much. Then he would have relaxed into his fate, remembering, thinking, ruminating about loved ones. Perhaps, if Metcalf was right, he would also have been thinking about the people he set out to save. She hoped he would have considered them one last time before he drifted into eternal sleep, hoped that bringing her here was not time wasted. Still, she could not imagine what the dead man might have been thinking that would lead the climbers to a cave buried under a literal mountain of snow.
Metcalf rested on his lines, feet against the mountain wall, and wrapped his arms around her as she reached for the dead man's hand. She felt Metcalf's cheek brush against hers. His arms encircled her waist and pulled her body tight into his. She could feel him taking the weight off her line. Then he reached for the dead man's hand and pulled it toward them, guiding it to her hand.
There was a full moment when she was thinking about nothing but Metcalf's arms around her, his warm breath on her neck as he took the weight off her harness. She had to make herself concentrate as she worked the cold fingers with her own until the hand was pliable and soft, and at last she felt the familiar transformation taking place.
...a woman's face, her lips were bleeding beneath patches of darkening skin. She was lying on red cloth, candlelight flickering on a brass zipper and all the white snow that surrounded her. A small electronic device was propped by her head, it looked cold and useless; now he looked up at the chin of a man and a tightly knotted necktie, olive skin and starched white shirt, gold cuff links on his wrists. His own little hand on the arm of a white wicker chair, the man was rocking him, they were on a green lawn above a crystal-blue sea; a woman now, a beautiful woman with hair pulled into a bun. She wore a two-piece bathing suit beneath a short cotton robe, turned to face a cortege of uniformed servants, one of them holding his hand; a man was sitting across from him, a black man with one white eye like a doll's, he was drinking something amber and smoking a long cigar; a procession of black limousines, a white casket buried under flowers, men in suits wearing sunglasses; bright-colored flags snapping across a vista of low clouds, a pretty girl with long dark hair, she was wearing a snowsuit and had sunscreen on her nose; numbers floating on a small disk of black space; the girl again, she was laughing, her lips had not yet cracked, were not yet bleeding; there were arrows on the black disk, one red pointed to a letter, an N, the other to three white digits, a one, a nine, and another one; looking down from the sky through the windshield of a helicopter, it was landing in front of a massive stone castle in a dense jungle. The building had spires and buttresses and was surrounded by tall security fencing. Guards were posted at gates and next to the landing pad.
He was inside now, there was a circle of black men wearing black uniforms, the room was large and damp and windowless, the floors were dirt except for a small round wooden platform. There was a floor-to-ceiling pole in the middle of it with leather hand restraints near the top, there were a dozen women circled around it, facing it, stripped of their clothes and kneeling. The uniformed men stood behind them with automatic weapons pointed at their heads. Others, Caucasian and Latino men, crowded forward to see. He backed away from them all, followed a dark corridor toward a pale pink light behind a partially open door. He looked inside and the walls, like the floor and ceiling, were painted blood red. There was an examination chair with stirrups in the middle of the room, a young blond woman was strapped to it, face immobilized by a clamp over her head, her left hand and foot were wrapped in bloody bandages. She was facing a large television screen that was playing a video. The video was of a woman sitting in the same chair, a naked black man with white face paint was standing between her legs, he was penetrating her, his skin broken in bleeding lesions and secreting ulcers, his eyes were dead as if he were in a trance.
On a stainless-steel instrument table next to the woman were bolt cutters...
He was off the side of a mountain, canister of dye aimed at the rock wall, wind spiraling him as he fumbled with the clips on his harness, he reached down, trying to undo them...then he was upside down, watching the snow fall, as if from heaven....
She jerked her head toward the voice.
"Okay," she said shakily. "I'm okay."
"What did you see?"
"Numbers." She nodded. "I saw the arrow he was making, but there were numbers on a compass, I think."
"It wasn't an arrow," Metcalf said matter-of-factly. His arms still around Sherry's waist, he was using his free hand to work a safety line through the dead man's climbing harness, securing it to the fixed-line pitons anchored in the granite wall. "They're numbers," Metcalf said. "The canister shoots a single stream of dye. He was leaving us the team's position in degrees. He must have been getting tossed around because they're not pretty. The nine is lying at a forty-five-degree angle on top of the one. If you weren't thinking about numbers, you might see an arrow with a circle on top of it." Metcalf finished tying the safety line off and let the body go.
"Something happened before he could finish it, maybe the wind was banging him around and he dropped the canister or maybe the line broke or released and he got upended. We know he wasn't finished writing because nineteen degrees points out there" he nodded over his shoulder "into space."
"The one and nine were followed by another one," Sherry said.
Metcalf broke another chemical pack and placed it in Sherry's hand. "Hold this," he said. "I'll help you with that glove in a minute."
He took the mike to his handset. "North Sickle, this is Sandstorm, over."
There was a crackle of static. "Go ahead, Sandstorm."
"Bearing one, nine, one, do you copy?"
"Copy, that's one, nine, one degrees, Commander?"
"Affirmative," Metcalf answered, then helped her with her glove.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
She nodded, thinking the moment would have seemed anticlimactic except for what she had seen in that castle and the red room.
"You did good, Miss Moore. You did very good."
"What will they do now?" she asked.
"This fellow's not going anywhere, I clipped on a safety line to make sure. We'll come back for him when the storms have passed through. My men up above will use the compass coordinates to search for snowbanks. You build snow caves into the side of an existing bank, not underneath it. Every bank on the compass line, they'll probe with avalanche sticks. Find something hollow and they'll dig."
"Why are the coordinates so important?"
"There's twenty acres up there. A three-degree variation would put them off mark a hundred yards for each quarter mile. Walk a mile and you're four hundred yards off target. That's the difference between here and the moon when you're trying to find a six-by-six-foot hole under the snow."
"You ready?" He checked the lines and then her harness.
Sherry nodded again. "I'm fine." And with that they began their slow ascent to 16,000 feet.
The Pave Hawk made two lifts off the Denali mountain that evening, the first to Providence Hospital in Anchorage with three surviving members of the American climbing expedition. They had been found a mile and a half from the ridge, dug into the wall between two peaks. The climbers were near death; none were aware the storm had ended. None were physically capable of digging their way out if they had known.
To say Metcalf was euphoric was an understatement. His energy was palpable, and it stayed with Sherry for the longest time. She felt an unmistakable sense of camaraderie. She had become a part of something much larger. She had become kindred to these men for a day.
The inn on Parks Highway was abuzz with excitement when they arrived on the second lift, but it was soldiers who greeted them, not reporters. No one in the civilian world yet knew what had taken place during the last six hours and 2,000 feet above basin camp on Denali. No one even knew they were there.
Thirty miles away, at the Talkeetna Ranger Station, reporters were being briefed on the progress of airlifts from basin camp. No hope was given for the teams caught above them.
A day later a United States senator from Washington would surprise the American public with an announcement that his daughter, Allison, had been one of the three climbers rescued from a ridge on Denali and that he wanted to personally thank Alaska's Air National Guard, Denali park rangers, and the Army High Altitude Rescue Team involved in bringing all of the survivors off the mountain. No mention was made of Navy SEALs or the pilot of the Pave Hawk. No mention was made of Sherry Moore.
Around the base of Denali, there were still days of mourning ahead, bodies to be recovered and identified, funerals to be held, but life went on, and new teams of climbers were already forming in Talkeetna, making plans for their summit assault. The disaster had diminished to back-page news articles, part of the chronicle of the mountain's recorded history.
Not so for Sherry Moore. To say she had been moved by the experience of clutching the side of a mountain would be a vast understatement. The enormity of where she had been was as vivid an image in her imagination as if she had stood, looking with good eyes, upon the summit herself. And yet it was impossible to enjoy that achievement, that memory not without also remembering those women in the bowels of a castle in a jungle.
The memories of Sergio Mendoza were impossible to leave on Denali. They had become an obstruction in her life. The women would not give her peace until she came looking for them.
And she was terrified of where that might lead.
Copyright © 2008 by George Shuman