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She and Collier Hallowell, the deputy D.A. in whom she'd developed a personal interest, were no longer alone on Mt. Tallac. Voices from the trail told Nina that they weren't alone any longer. A group of hikers came straggling up to their lookout one by one, led by a strong-looking bald man with a set, hard expression on his face, wearing a heavy aluminum-frame pack and olive-colored golf hat. Behind him came a boy and girl in their late teens, both astonishingly tall and attractive, look-alikes with their fair hair and sunglasses and long legs in hiking shorts. The girl wore a black T-shirt that said WHATEVER. The girl and the man, who appeared to be her father, were arguing, the girl's voice protesting, the man's caustic and commanding. The boy, who must have been her brother, lagged behind as if reluctant to get involved.
A few moments later they were joined by a woman in shorts with a tennis visor over her curly black hair, stumbling and breathless, and another man, grim-faced and weathered, wearing a blue and green bandanna around his neck.
Nina and Collier stood aside to let the group pass and take in the best view, but though they walked over to the standpoint, the hikers weren't interested in the scenery. The tension between the girl and the man occupied them completely. Only the woman in the visor bothered to nod; to the others, Nina and Collier might as well have been rocks.
We better hustle," Collier said as they moved back onto the trail. "Those clouds make me nervous."
The trail led past another small lake on a flat, just before a steep two-hundred-foot slope that led to smooth rock where fresh, cold water ran down. They followed it upstream, glad to be on a level stretch, looking up every once in a while toward the cumulus clouds massing like mushrooms in the east.
Not far behind them they could see the small figures of the other hikers. "Not... a...happy...group," Nina said between breaths.
"It's a hard climb," Collier said. "The guy in front with the big backpack--the father, is my guess--sounds like the domestic-tyrant type to me. Maybe he's the only one who wanted to come, but it's hard to say no to a man like that."
"What about the second man?" Nina said. "He didn't look like one of the family."
"Hard to say," Collier said. "How are you doing?"
"Sweating more," Nina said. "Is it my imagination, or is it getting a lot more humid?" They both paused and looked up again. The drifting clouds were now clumping rapidly into ominous thunderheads.
"Shit," Collier said. "The summit's dangerous in a summer storm. Almost guaranteed to pick up a lightning strike, since Tallac is the tallest mountain around. I don't know what to do. We're only about four hundred vertical feet from the top."
"Oh, let's keep going," Nina said. "If we don't go on now, we'll miss the whole experience, the night on the mountain, the shooting stars, all because it might have rained. If anything happens, we can always dive into a ditch. We're supposed to be having an adventure."
"I don't think we should assume there'll be a ditch handy just because we need one."
They had stopped again on the narrow crest trail. A thunderhead had settled weightily above, poised to dump directly on their heads. Turning to look behind them, they could see the group they had run into before making the same ascent, coming up toward them.
Still at the front of the group, his shirt sticking to his body in the warm moist air, the bald man flicked angrily at the insects swarming around his face. He was sweating copiously. He said in a challenging voice to Collier, "Giving up?" His mouth moved into a cold smile.
"Considering it," Collier said.
The man tilted his head back, examining the sky. He rubbed his cheek with his hand. "It's looking real bad," he concluded, and his voice held a gloom that suggested he meant more than the clouds above. "Goddamn ugly." He drew the words out, nodding to the group standing behind him, who tensed at the profanity, silent and alert to his every move, as if they were waiting for something else from him, something worse.
He said in a slow, deliberate drawl to Collier, "You wouldn't want to get your hairdo all wet." He had the belligerent look of someone who enjoys insulting strangers. The rest of the group seemed to hang back, as if to say, he's not with us.
Collier straightened up, stared back. The air between the two of them bristled.
Nina said quickly, "Are you going on?"
"Of course we are. We're almost there. A little rain never hurt anybody." He gave Collier another long, aggressive stare, but the woman in the visor sat down suddenly on the trail and let out a sigh of exhaustion, and his hostile attention turned to her. "Quit malingering, Sarah. I'll get you in shape yet."
"It's my feet, Ray. I'm sorry."
"'It's my feet, Ray,'" the man said in falsetto, mimicking her. "Here we go again. Whining and complaining. Rubbing my nose in it. Making sure I don't get to forget it even for one lousy minute. Dr. Lee says you have to walk. So walk, damn it."
The girl hugged herself with her bare arms. "Dr. Lee never said Mom could climb a mountain. He didn't mean that."
"She'll do what I tell her to."
"You're such an asshole," the girl said in a low voice.
"What'd you say? Huh? What'd I just hear you say?"
"I said 'you're such an asshole,'" the girl said, her chin jutted forward, her eyes filled with angry tears.
Before the rest of them could react, he gave her a stinging slap that sent her reeling toward her mother, who put her arms around her. "Big-mouth Molly," he said, looking around in an almost shamefaced way. "You see how she baits me?"
"I ought to break your face for that, Ray," the man in the bandanna said, his fist raised.
"Shut up, Leo. Or I might start wondering why Sarah insisted you come along."
"I said I'd come with you," Sarah said, stumbling to her feet. "Please, Ray. Don't start anything." The girl helped her, hand on her cheek, holding her head high.
"The boy took the light pack Sarah was carrying and swung it over his shoulder. He wore it and the heavy pack on his back lightly. Nina couldn't see his eyes under the green sunglasses. "Come on, Mom. Let's go down," he said.
"You're not going anywhere with her, Jason," Ray said. He stepped forward and grabbed Sarah's arm. "You're all so worried about this sorry woman, you can finish the climb with us. Because we're going up."
"Really, I'm okay," the woman said apologetically to the others. Beads of sweat stood out on her lip. "Let's just do what Ray says."
"That's better," Ray said. He turned back to Collier. "Go ahead, run back down like a scared rabbit."
"Collier said, "As a matter of fact, we're heading up. It's looking a little better. C'mon, Nina."
"With pleasure," Nina said. They walked off, leaving the group standing there rigid and unspeaking, as if anger had turned them to marble. She followed Collier a little to the east to a weather-beaten clump of conifers.
"We could wait out a storm here," he said.
"Under a tree?" Nina said. "I should have known better than to climb a mountain with another lawyer. I thought everyone knew trees are dangerous if there's any lightning."
"The main thing is to get below the summit as fast as you can if the weather breaks. At least here we'd have some protection from the wind." They both looked upward. The sky had turned murky, lightless, almost sooty, and the breeze felt stronger, but there were still no distant rumblings or flashes. They could see the pointed summit just two hundred feet up and away.
"What do you think?" Collier said. "We're practically there."
"Go for it," Nina said, and he nodded.
"I suppose we'll meet our friends up there. They'll be following one of the parallel routes upward. At this point the trail hardly exists, anyway; it's just a scramble."
"I can hardly wait," Nina said. "I felt like breaking his face too."
"I didn't think we ought to--you know, get involved. The other man won't let it happen again. Need a hand?"
"Certainly not." They began the scramble, northeast to the brink of a dangerously steep avalanche chute, then diagonally northwest. In places they could not avoid the snow, and once Collier slipped on an icy patch that had somehow persevered into August, catching himself just before tumbling headfirst down the slope.
The hike so lightheartedly begun had degenerated into an ordeal. Nina wanted to finish and retreat quickly to the cluster of conifers two hundred feet down. The unpleasant mood of the other hikers had affected her. She didn't want to spend the night up there anymore, especially not with those folks. And the weather...
She climbed the last few steps up the dark, friable metamorphic rock, weary but excited. Collier, already at the top, dropped his pack on the ground, his hair blowing in the stiff wind.
"You wanted to spend the night here?" Nina called. The wind blew hard and steady, almost forcing her back, and it was warm, peculiarly warm.
Collier didn't answer. He seemed transfixed by the scene.
"Rain!" More raindrops landed on her hands. She held them out mutely, and Collier's eyes widened.
"Okay," he said. "We made it. Now let's get out of here." His words were punctuated by a rolling, harsh noise that blasted up the mountain toward them. At the same time they saw, directly in front of them but several hundred feet out in the air, a sight as magnificent and terrible as the mountain they were now trying to escape, a bolt of lightning thrown down from the layers of clouds, met from below by its jagged twin.
As the bolts crashed together, crackling and hissing around them, the hairs on the back of Nina's neck stood up. Clapping her hands to her ears, she tried to flatten herself, but Collier was grabbing her by the shoulders and turning her toward where the trail must be, extinguished in the torrent of rain that had suddenly begun falling. "Hold on to my pack!" he yelled.
"Half-blind in the downpour, they groped their way frantically down toward the avalanche slope. The booming, rolling, noise never let up, as if they were trapped inside a big drum, more percussion than sound. Now and then a clap rent the sky and almost knocked them off their feet. More lightning flashed around the mountains, but now it had coalesced into a glaring sheet of light across the underbelly of the storm.
Collier held out his arm and stopped Nina, pointing toward a small boulder with an overhang. They hustled over and crouched under the rock, tearing off their packs and putting them in front for protection and then peering fearfully out at the frenzy. The din was incredible. The temperature plummeted, and hailstones began to batter the ground, gusting into their inadequate shelter and bouncing off the rocks outside like a blizzard of ricocheting BB pellets.
Nina unzipped her pack with clumsy fingers, managing to pull out a dry flannel shirt to shield their faces as they crouched behind the packs. Even shouting was impossible. For an endless ten minutes they curled up and buried their heads like animals, enduring the worst of the storm.
At last there came a sinister lull, and they pulled down the shirt, now heavy and stiff with melting hail. The light shooting through the clouds dimmed. Below the slick rocky ledge Nina saw remote trees flattened as if a meteor had passed by. She rubbed her numb hands, thinking, It's over, we made it...
She turned her head to tell Collier, and he looked so funny, his hair was standing straight up, and then there was the smell of ozone and that awful tension in the air again, of something building, building up to intolerable stress, cracking...
She heard a bang just before a terrific gash of lightning struck about seventy-five feet above, right at the summit rocks. They saw only the upper segment, blinding and terrible. They both yelled and clutched at each other.
And as they gaped out into the appalling light, their eyes shocked and dazzled, deafened by the thunder reverberating all around, they saw a body catapulting past, blown off the mountain, falling toward the rocks below.