Avalanche (A Stone Mountain Mystery Book 3) (18 page)

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 

“What’s going on?” Ben asked.

The wall of snow blurred Kalin’s view of Ben, but she didn’t care. He was here, and she’d be safe.

Justin clenched his fists by his sides. “Get lost, dude.”

At five-foot-nine, Ben was no match for Justin in height, but he had more strength in his muscles. He stepped between Justin and Kalin, flexing his bulk. “Are you all right?” he asked her.

She picked up the books and shook snow off them. “I’m fine. Let’s go.”

Justin’s body was primed for a fight. “I said get lost. This is none of your business.”

“Move away from Kalin.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Her husband.”

Justin took two steps backward and pointed at Kalin. “I’m not finished with you.”

“Yes, you are,” Ben said. He turned toward Kalin. “Come on.”

Justin swung, punching Ben in the back of his head, knocking him to the ground. A piece of ice slashed Ben’s forehead, and blood dripped between his eyebrows. He launched into a standing position and threw a punch that glanced off Justin’s chin. His second punch slammed into Justin’s nose.

Justin teetered backward, leaving his neck exposed.

Ben thrust his hand directly into Justin’s throat, catching him by surprise. The bony edge of his hand made contact, and Justin bent forward, gasping and coughing. While Justin was vulnerable, Ben kicked him hard on the side of his ankle and knocked him to the ground.

Kalin didn’t waste time. “Let’s go.” She reached for Ben and pulled him with her. They left Justin moaning and holding his ankle between his hands.

When they reached their place, Ben trailed behind Kalin into the bathroom. Chica followed, wagging her tail, demanding attention.

“Here. Sit.” She pointed at the toilet and Chica sat, making both Kalin and Ben laugh.

Kalin opened a drawer containing medical supplies, all labeled and standing side by side, and selected a bottle of disinfectant.

Ben watched her as she wiped his forehead. “You have amazing eyes.” The absorbent pad caught the edge of the gash, and he winced.

“Sorry, did that hurt?”

Ben laughed, and his smile widened. “Not really.”

“Tough guy. It’s going to hurt later.” Kalin grabbed a bottle of acetaminophen with codeine from the drawer. “Here, take two of these.”

Ben accepted the pills along with the glass of water she offered him. “Are you going to tell me what you were doing?”

She tossed the pad into the garbage and rinsed her hands in scalding water. “Don’t be mad.”

With a gentle touch, she dabbed antibiotic cream on his forehead. “I don’t think you need stitches, although what do I know.” She rinsed her hands a second time. “I’m really glad you came by when you did. I’m not sure what I would have done.”

“Flattery won’t work.”

She sat on the edge of the bathtub. “I wanted to check out Roy’s locker.”

“I could’ve done that for you. And why at night?”

“I didn’t want Turner to know what I was doing. And I didn’t want you to get in trouble with him.”

“You’re going to get yourself fired.” Ben held eye contact with her for several seconds. “Or is that the idea, so you can take the job at White Peaks?”

“How can you say that?” Kalin left the bathroom and plopped on the living room couch.

Ben followed and took the chair across the room as far from her as possible. He tucked his fists underneath his armpits and leaned farther away from her. “Well?”

“I think Roy stole the money, but I don’t think he did it alone. If someone triggered the avalanche and left him there, I won’t let them get away with it. I can’t live with this hanging over my head. It’s got nothing to do with White Peaks.”

“What makes you sure Roy’s guilty?”

Kalin explained what she’d learned, and Ben moved to her side of the room, picked up her hand and kissed her palm. “I love you, you know. You don’t have to go through this alone.”

A lump filled her throat. “I know.” She leaned her head against his chest. Ben had been extremely patient with her and not mentioned White Peaks for a while. He let her get on with her career without interfering. What had she done to deserve such a great guy? The truth was her only option now, and she hoped it didn’t lead to a fight. “They offered me the job.”

Kalin could tell Ben held his breath.

“I haven’t accepted yet.”

“But you might?”

“Only if it’ll work for both of us. But I need to find out what happened to Roy first.”

“Then let me help you. I’m on your side. I don’t mind keeping secrets if it’s for you.”

Kalin tilted her head and placed a wet kiss on his lips.

When she finally let him go, Ben said, “Let’s see what you found.”

She gathered the collection of things she’d taken from Roy’s locker and placed them on the pine coffee table. Fingering the envelope she’d found tucked between the pages of one of the books, she pulled out a printed email. She was invading Roy’s privacy. What if she found something horrible? But what if she missed something important?

Taking a deep breath, she unfolded the email and pressed the paper across the table. A love note from Patricia, his ex-fiancée. He must have still been hurting over her, otherwise, why keep the email? And what did Patricia mean by Roy should forgive himself? Kalin regretted coming between Roy and his fiancée. She handed the email to Ben and noticed writing on the backside.

“What’s on the back?”

Ben flipped the paper. “It’s a list. Parker $150, Price $200, Wilson $175. Price could be Aiden, but who are the other two?”

“I’m pretty sure the first is Greg Parker. I think he sold drugs to Roy. Aiden fired him for smoking dope at work. The last one might be Eric Wilson, the finance center clerk from Australia. I saw him once with Parker.”

“So did these guys owe Roy money, or did he owe them?”

 

* * *

 

Ben woke feeling nauseated. Sometime during the night his mouth had dehydrated, leaving his tongue furry. His eyelids stuck to his eyeballs, and he slowly pried them open. At thirty-one, he couldn’t drink as much alcohol as when he was twenty.
Go figure.

After the previous night’s excitement, Kalin and Ben had opened a bottle of wine, lit a fire and spent the evening reconciling. He drank most of the wine, and they’d skipped dinner. Not a good combination. He lay in bed and kept his head still.

Why did Kalin have to get an offer from White Peaks? He loved her. Maybe he should be the supporting husband and put her career first, but he loved living in Stone Mountain, too. He’d been there so long, he couldn’t remember what life was like before.

Being the guy from the Stone Age who put his career over his wife’s wouldn’t impress anyone. Quitting and starting over wasn’t appealing. If there wasn’t a ski patrol job for him at White Peaks, he didn’t know what he’d do. The volunteer fire department had room for him, but only in a junior position.

Chica eyed him from her spot on the floor, her brown eyes turning up soulfully, her jaw resting on the bed and her tail wagging. He wanted nothing more than to sleep longer on his day off, but Kalin had already been at work for a couple of hours, and he shouldn’t still be lying in bed.

“What are you looking at?” Ben rubbed Chica’s head, and interpreting that as an invitation, she put her front paws on the bed. “Give me a minute, will you? I feel like crap.”

Chica swung her tail harder, causing her rump to wiggle.

“Ever hear of a hangover? No? I guess not.” Unable to resist her charm, he plodded to the back door and let her out. Without waiting, he grabbed a couple of ibuprofen and checked the cut on his forehead. Nothing to worry about, so he went back to bed. Chica expected attention every moment they were together, and most of the time he gave it to her, but today his soft mattress called him.

He could relate to Kalin’s need to find out what happened to her brother. He agreed with her that Roy stole the money. If he had a choice, he’d drop the matter, but Kalin was determined to find out if someone else was involved. Ben didn’t want her to put herself in danger again, and he didn’t want Turner to fire her for ignoring his instructions to stay out of the investigation. Then she’d take the White Peaks job for sure.

Roy had been acting weird during the weeks preceding the avalanche. When Ben asked him if anything was wrong, Roy shrugged and said it was nothing he couldn’t handle.

Ben thought back to the night before the avalanche. He’d stood in the front hall and glared at Roy.

Snow blew in around Roy and the security guard who stood beside him. The flakes glowed in the beam from the front hall light. Ben’s body ached from the previous two days of avalanche training. He should be stretching his muscles and going to bed early instead of dealing with Roy and his issues.

Roy’s head hung low, with his chin almost touching his chest. Ben suspected he hid a smile and didn’t care they were upset. How could he be Kalin’s brother? Miss Responsible related to Mister Irresponsible.

The security guard hung on to the back of Roy’s jacket, keeping him from falling over. “Hi, Kalin. Sorry about this.”

Kalin held onto Ben’s elbow and frowned at her brother. “Don’t worry. You need to do your job.”

The guard nudged Roy further into the foyer. “He said he lives here now.”

Ben motioned for Roy to come inside. “We’ll take him from here.”

The guard bit the corner of his lip. “Um.”

Kalin smiled at him, and Ben admired she could be generous with her kindness when she was obviously furious with Roy. The poor guard brought his director’s brother home drunk.

“What do you want me to put in the report?”

“Exactly what you normally would. I don’t want any special treatment for him.”

“Nice,” Roy mumbled.

The guard nodded and backed out of the doorway, looking as if he couldn’t wait to disappear. Ben didn’t blame the guy.

“Why are you drinking so much?” Kalin asked.

“If only you knew.” Roy put his hand on the wall, leaving a smear of dirt and wet snow. He must have fallen at some point. He used the wall as a brace as he lumbered toward his room.

“Stop,” Ben said.

“I need to lie down.”

“I recommended you for ski patrol. It’s a hard day on the mountain tomorrow. Take it seriously if you want to keep the job.”

“Christ. What am I? Twelve?”

“I’m not cutting you slack at work because we’re related. We’re leaving here at seven thirty. Be ready.”

“Jack would never have treated me this way,” Roy said.

At the mention of her deceased husband, Kalin breathed in sharply. Even for Roy, the comment was a low blow.

Kalin’s lip curled. “Go to bed, Roy.”

“Don’t be so sensitive.” Roy plodded along the hallway, occasionally using the wall for support. His boots left a trail of dirt on the slate tile. “Jack was more man than Ben will ever be.”

“Pack your bags,” Ben said. “You’ll be moving out in the morning.”

Chica’s sassy bark returned Ben to the present. If he hadn’t kicked Roy out, he wouldn’t be lying in bed now worrying about Kalin.

The RCMP had searched through Roy’s things, including the suitcase stored in the garage. Maybe they’d overlooked something, and it couldn’t hurt to check. Ben stood and winced. Okay, maybe it could hurt. He sat on the edge of the bed, letting the pounding ease. Man, he really should cut back on the booze. He tried again, took his time standing, pulled jeans over his boxer shorts and headed toward the back door.

Chica followed him to the garage. The suitcase was tucked in the back behind other junk. He carried it from the garage to the guest bedroom, his head throbbing with every step. Chica stayed inches behind his legs, and when he put the suitcase on the floor and flipped the lid open, she stuck her nose in the clothes, wildly sniffing Roy’s scent.

The RCMP had repacked the suitcase without folding the clothes, leaving them in a wrinkled clump. Ben removed the clothing and scoured the suitcase, but found nothing. He replaced the clothing, carefully folding each piece, checking every pocket, and discovered a key tucked inside the pouch of a gray hoodie. He knew instantly which lock the key was meant to open.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

 

After the adventure the previous night with Justin Bradley, Kalin needed to settle down and focus on work. She sat at her desk and contemplated the summer plan. If she thought about something other than Roy and the theft, her brain might process in the background and figure out what was going on. She’d been tempted to stay in bed with Ben earlier but managed to resist since his snoring would have kept her awake.

Her cell rang, but she didn’t recognize the number.

“It’s Nora. You busy?”

“Not really. How’s Ian doing skiing?”

“Great. Lake Placid is a blast.”

“You sound excited. What’s going on? Did Ian win a race?”

“Ian thought I should wait until I got home to tell you, but I just can’t.”

“Tell me what?”

“Ian proposed. We’re getting married.”

“Congratulations. I can’t wait till you get home, so we can plan your wedding.”

“Will you be my matron of honor?”

“You don’t have to ask. Of course. I owe you that one.” Nora had helped Kalin dress for her own wedding and stood by her side when she exchanged vows with Ben. She’d even helped Ben arrange getting Kalin’s parents and Roy to attend. Ben had surprised Kalin with the ceremony, and Nora had kept it secret until the last moment.

She missed Nora and wished she’d come home soon. After giggling over the proposal with Nora, Kalin disconnected the call.
Now how am I supposed to concentrate?

The resort needed summer employees for the restaurants, hotels, mountain bike park, retail shops, golf course, kayak rentals and guest services, and her HR team had the task of hiring the three-hundred-fifty people required to operate for the summer season. The quality of employees hired could make or break a season, and Kalin’s HR manager, Monica, liked her involvement in the process.

If she was going to help Monica when she presented the plan to Turner, she’d better review the requirements. The number of employees would be greater than the previous summer since the fire damage had been repaired and the resort would be back up to full staff again. On the white board hanging on her office wall, she wrote a heading across the top for each department, the approximate start dates down the side and the number of people needed in the intersecting boxes.

“Hello?”

Kalin put down the marker and glanced into the reception area. A woman, somewhere between twenty-five and thirty held the hand of a little girl. The girl wore baggy blue pants a size too big for her and worn at the knees. A stain, which might have been mustard, marred her worn ski jacket. Her faux fur-lined hood drooped on her shoulders, framing uncombed dark brown hair. The woman looked at Tessa with a quizzical expression.

Tessa sat at the reception desk, her head down, ignoring the woman. Even with her cochlear implant, sometimes she missed hearing things. She must have seen Kalin walk to the reception desk, and she stopped what she was doing.

“Oh sorry,” she said to the woman. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I’m looking for Aiden Price. Do you know where I can find him?” The woman was twenty pounds overweight, a little over five feet tall, with emerald eyes that glistened.

“I’m not sure if he’s working today,” Kalin said. “If he is, he’ll be on the mountain.”

“I need to talk to him.” Dark circles under the woman’s eyes blended into slush-colored cheeks. She looked as if she needed sleep.

“If you want, I can call him,” Kalin said.

“Would you mind? Tell him his wife and daughter are here.”

 

* * *

 

“Your wife and daughter are looking for you,” Kalin said to Aiden. She tucked her cell phone tight against her ear and continued walking. “They’d like you to meet them in the cafeteria. I gave them lunch vouchers.”

“Adrienne’s here? Do you know what she wants? What did she say?” His questions came in rapid succession.

“So it’s true. You’re married, and you have a daughter.”

“She’s my ex-wife.”

Kalin entered the cafeteria kitchen through the back entrance. The aroma of a Bolognese sauce simmering on the commercial-grade stove top made her stomach growl, and she decided pasta for lunch.

Something was strange about Aiden. Kalin stood at the edge of the kitchen and watched the woman and child. Since Kalin had secrets, she couldn’t criticize him for having his own. She was snooping, and she didn’t like the trait, but curiosity won over ethics.

Five minutes later, Aiden shuffled in, looking like a man walking to the edge of a cliff. Scowling, he said something to Adrienne but never looked at the child.

Adrienne spoke.

Aiden shook his head and scurried away.

Kalin waited until he was out of sight before she approached.

“Hi again.” Adrienne rubbed the girl’s back, pulling her close for a quick hug.

“Is everything okay?” Kalin asked.

“We’re all right. I don’t know why I keep expecting Aiden to change. Even if he doesn’t want to see us, I thought he’d at least help us out with some money.”

Kalin hadn’t expected such a revealing answer from a woman she didn’t know. “Can I do anything?”

“I hate to ask, but we need a place to stay tonight.”

“I can reserve a room for you,” Kalin offered.

“Sweet, except I can’t really afford one.”

Adrienne’s eyes pleaded, and Kalin understood how difficult it must be to have her daughter see her dependent on a stranger. “Don’t worry about it. I can give you a complimentary night. We are in the lodging business, after all.”

“If you want, you can wait here, and I’ll get a room organized.” Kalin made eye contact with the little girl. “What’s your name?”

“Samantha.”

“Well then, Samantha, did you happen to pack a bathing suit?”

Samantha shook her head.

“The outdoor pools are fun. I’ll get you a couple of suits from lost and found, and you can go for a swim this afternoon.” Kalin laughed at the look on Adrienne’s face. “Don’t worry. The pools are heated. Samantha, if you’d like some dessert, there are lots of yummy things to eat.”

Before Kalin was out of earshot, she overheard Samantha say, “She’s nice, Mommy.”

Kalin phoned Aiden, talking as she strode back to her office. “Adrienne said they needed a place to stay, and I thought I’d let you know they’re spending the night here. I set them up with a poolside room.”

“Now you’re on a first-name basis with her?”

“Don’t get mad at me. I’m letting you know they’re staying tonight. What you do with that is up to you.”

“You’re not going to tell anyone about this, are you?”

“No. This is your business, not mine,” she said.

“You don’t know the whole story. It’s not what it looks like.”

“Like I said, this isn’t my business. I’m busy today. I gotta go.” She skirted the bottom of the Alpine Tracks run, passing a lift line that stretched beyond the end of the maze gates. Families talking, laughing and exuding happiness waited for the chair to take them to a higher altitude. So unlike Adrienne and Samantha.

Kalin spotted Justin Bradley working at the lift. Aiden had restarted Justin’s three-month probationary period, allowed him back at work and warned him if another incident occurred, he’d be fired. Kalin was uncomfortable with him as an employee but had supported Aiden’s decision.

 

* * *

 

Dark green lodgepole pines loomed over Kalin, creaking and moaning as each gust of wind twisted through their scraggy branches. As dusk settled, the trees began to fade into one another, and she could no longer make out detail in the underbrush. She walked in the center, not running, but moving fast enough to reach the road within a few minutes.

She was within five meters of a lone coyote, posed in silence at the edge of the path, before she noticed the animal and stopped. She sunk slightly in the soft snow. She yanked bear spray from her pocket, held the aerosol can at arm’s length and pointed the nozzle at the coyote.

The coyote twitched its tapered ears and tilted its head to one side. A tree branch snapped, breaking the trance. The coyote flicked its eyes in the direction of the offending tree, then back at Kalin, and bolted into the forest, swishing the black tip of its tail. The stench of a wild animal, close to the scent of a dog but riper, lingered. She waited until the coyote disappeared, and alert to her surroundings, hiked toward home.

Before she reached the road, she heard the coyote yipping with its pack. The animals made unique sounds: one like a barking dog, another a crying child, the next a howling wolf. They looped around in front of her and were now between her and the road. Kalin couldn’t tell how many of them blocked her way.

She turned around, walked back to the office and took the long way home. Along the road, she bumped into Jessica. Jessica rented a suite in a vacation home on Black Bear Drive ten houses farther along the road than Kalin and Ben’s house.

“I was looking at employee photos and found some of Roy and Aiden. It looked like they were good friends for a while. I didn’t know that,” Kalin said.

Jessica stomped her feet, first one, then the other, and tucked her hands underneath her armpits. “I don’t mean to be unfriendly, but I don’t want to talk about Roy.”

“You’re good friends with Aiden. Do you know why he and Roy stopped being friends?”

“Simon Crane needs his job back. Can’t you do something for him?”

The question came out of nowhere, somewhat like the speeding truck that swerved around the corner. Sidewalks were not part of the resort’s design, and Kalin and Jessica were forced to move to the road’s edge as the truck sped by. They were briefly illuminated by the headlights, then fell back into darkness. In that second, the anger in Jessica’s face lit up, and Kalin backed away.

“I can’t talk about that with you.”

“Did you know Simon and his wife split? After you showed Natalie the Internet sites you accused him of looking at, she left him. You never should have shown her the list. They might still be together.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, but maybe it’s better she knows what Simon was doing. Relationships are hard. You should know that.” Kalin was being blunt, cruel even, but she couldn’t help herself. Jessica brought out nastiness in her, and the words were out of her mouth before she realized she didn’t want to hurt her.

Jessica wrapped her arms tight around her chest. Even in a bulky ski jacket, she looked anorexic. “I don’t know why you think I should talk to you. You called the cops on Simon, told them he might have access to the safe combination, and do you know what you caused? Do you?”

Kalin, stunned into silence by the viciousness in Jessica’s voice, shook her head.

“They interrogated me again. They asked if I gave Simon my key to the finance center and then told the locksmith I’d lost it. If I didn’t give it to Simon, did I give it to Roy? Did I leave the combination the same for a month on purpose? Did I fake Eric’s criminal record check? I haven’t done anything wrong. I was fired. My so-called friends won’t be seen anywhere near me, and no one cares I lost Roy. What did I ever do to you except love him?”

Jessica took off, running away from Kalin, disappearing into the darkness.

 

* * *

 

Ben glanced at the time on his phone, and only ten seconds had passed since the last time he’d checked. Kalin had called when she left her office and should have reached home by now. He’d called her office and her cell, both times getting her voicemail. He paced around the living room, looking out one window, then the next. Chica joined him, playing follow the leader. He picked up a
Ski Canada
magazine, put it back down and turned on the TV.

When he heard the front door open, he ran down the stairs. He reached Kalin before she crossed the threshold. Chica scooted around him, bouncing at Kalin’s feet.

“Where were you when I needed you?” she whispered into Chica’s ear. In response, Chica licked her. Kalin didn’t turn her head fast enough, and Chica landed a slobbery kiss on her lips.

“Lucky dog,” Ben said.

“She’s not the only lucky one.” Kalin pressed her lips to Ben’s, seductively kissing him. “I love you.”

Hearing Kalin say the words was a salve to Ben’s ego. Trying not to sound controlling, he asked, “What took you so long to get here?”

“I got half way on the trail and had to turn around and go the long route. A coyote pack blocked my way to the road, and I was too chicken to stay on the path.”

“Why didn’t you call me?” Ben was sure he sounded controlling but couldn’t help himself.

Kalin gave him a full dimple smile. “Battery’s dead.”

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, just a little frazzled. I bumped into Jessica. She’s pretty pissed at me.” Kalin took off her ski jacket and handed it to Ben. Before sitting on the wooden bench that filled most of the front hall, she ran her fingers across the hand-carved backrest that peaked into a mountain range, making her think of Roy.

Other books

Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear
Victory at Yorktown: A Novel by Newt Gingrich, William R. Forstchen
When in Rome by Giusti, Amabile
Beauty and the Feast by Julia Barrett
Playing for Keeps by McLane, LuAnn
Bound to Happen by Mary Kay McComas