Avalanche (A Stone Mountain Mystery Book 3) (2 page)

With a shaky voice, Helen said, “I won’t know for sure until I total the receipts from last night’s cashouts, but I think…” Helen swallowed. “I think around one hundred thousand.”

“That can’t be right. It’s too much for one day.”

Orderly piles of receipts from the weekend covered Helen’s desk, and by the time she finished reconciling, Kalin expected she would know to the penny how much money had been stolen.

Helen intertwined her fingers and pressed her palms together. “It’s from Saturday and Sunday. Plus the cash I keep for the floats.”

“What are you talking about?” Jessica asked.

“I didn’t take the money to the bank on Saturday. I–”

Jessica arched her perfectly sculpted eyebrows. “You what?”

“The bank requested I hold on to the money until today. They said the bank drop was broken.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. Look, Turner will want to know the exact amount you lost, so hustle up and get the reconciling done.”

“But…I didn’t lose the money.”

“I need to tell Turner soon,” Jessica said.

“We still have a problem,” Helen said. “I’ll start reconciling now, but I can’t finish until I get the receipts from night audit.”

Jessica’s lip curled, and she exhaled in a growl. “Have you called Simon?”

“I haven’t had the chance yet.”

“Call him now. I’ll talk to Turner, then come back to help you. Get an accurate count done within an hour.”

Having a cavity filled would be better than joining that conversation. Turner, the president of the resort, wasn’t known for accepting mistakes or failure well. And a theft would definitely fall under the failure category. Failure to secure the safe. As director of security, this was her fault. “Want me to come with you?” Kalin asked.

Jessica eyed her for a moment. “No. Turner won’t like that you knew before he did. I’ll go.”

Kalin didn’t exactly trust Jessica to give Turner an accurate account of the theft. Who knew what she would say without a witness? “You don’t need to take the blame for this alone. I’ll come.”

CHAPTER THREE

 

Ben arrived at the mountain operations building and found the Stone Mountain ski patrol team assembled and in full regalia. He took in the people he was now responsible for with new eyes. Every patroller wore a red ski jacket bearing a white cross on each sleeve. On each chest hung an avalanche transceiver and a VHF radio. Matched with black ski pants, black gloves, black helmets and black backpacks, they looked professional and inspired confidence.

The only issue was the rank odor of so many sweat-infused jackets in one room. Ben ignored the smell, knowing he was probably just as offensive, and dumped his fleece on the bench in front of his locker. His volunteer fire department T-shirt stretched across his chest and arms, and he flexed his biceps. Could anyone tell he was nervous about his new role?

“Listen up, everyone,” Oliver Ward said. “As of now, Ben’s the new manager of ski patrol and search and rescue. He’ll be reporting to me in my new role as director.”

After a few cheers, slaps on his back and congratulations, Ben said, “Let’s get to work.” He turned to Oliver. Two newbies in their roles. Maybe Oliver was nervous, too. “What’s the status?”

Oliver bent and snapped each buckle into place on his left boot. “We’re ready to check out the terrain surrounding the Dragon’s Bowl.” He rubbed his ear, stopping at the missing lobe, the lobe he’d lost to frostbite a couple of years ago during a search and rescue mission. The wooden bench he sat on wobbled on the uneven concrete floor as he buckled his second boot. He twisted his head toward Ben. “Is Roy with you? He’s not answering his phone.”

“Nope. He left the house before I got up this morning.” Ben opened his locker, pulled out his equipment and started his meticulous routine of gearing up. To say Kalin’s relationship with her brother was complicated was an understatement. Ben heard Roy leave well before dawn and hadn’t tried to stop him. But where was he now? Coming to work late was not a cool move.

And there was Kalin to worry about. She liked to hide in the hot tub when she needed to think. He should’ve asked her what was on her mind instead of being preoccupied with his promotion and the argument with Roy.

So much of Kalin attracted Ben. He liked the way she always walked with purpose as if she had somewhere important to be. Her mixture of curves and muscle was sexy as hell. He loved the dimple that appeared on her left cheek when she smiled and how her nose wiggled when she talked. Sometimes he couldn’t believe she’d chosen him. He’d make her proud.

An elderly man with a silver Husky clipped to a leash stood outside the glass door and knocked. All heads turned toward him.

Oliver opened the door, letting a gust of cold air rush into the room. The chill made his skin redden, and the freckles across the bridge of his nose faded with the color change. “Can I help you?”

“Bishop, sit,” the man commanded. “Name’s Bryan Nelson. I’m staying at the Evergreen. I heard an avalanche a while ago. You guys set one off?”

“No,” Oliver said. “But there was a slide in the Dragon’s Bowl. We’re getting ready to check it out.”

“Someone might have been on the mountain this morning.”

Silence crept across the room as, one by one, each patroller focused on Nelson. The Dragon’s Bowl covered seven hundred and fifty acres of difficult terrain.

“I was walking Bishop,” Nelson nodded toward the Husky, “around five thirty, and I think two people were trekking up the ski hill. I saw two headlamps, but one was way up the mountain. I’m not sure if it was a reflection or a light from a person.”

The team erupted into a frenzy of motion.

Ben grabbed his skis from the rack at the side of the room. Roy’s assigned spots contained an empty slot. “Oh, crap.”

“What?” Oliver asked.

“Roy’s touring skis and poles aren’t here. He can’t have—”

“Dawn patrol?”

“Who the fuck knows with Roy? I hassled him about not taking the job seriously. Maybe he’s…Christ. I don’t know.”

Oliver leaned close to Ben’s ear. “Keep it together. You can do this.”

Ben took a deep breath. “Anyone seen Aiden?”

As the lift manager, Aiden Price needed to be informed if ski patrol initiated a search and rescue mission. Ben would leave only two patrollers to monitor the eight ski lifts and one hundred and twenty ski runs on the mountain.

“He’s not in yet,” one of the patrollers said.

Before issuing commands to the group, Ben locked eyes with Oliver.

“You’re in charge,” Oliver said.

Ben gave one curt nod and faced the team. “Call in everyone,” he said to the administration assistant who’d been hovering in the doorway nearest his desk. “Then see if you can find Roy. Also check if anyone else is missing.” To the rest of the team, he said, “Let’s go.”

He tightened his helmet strap and bolted toward the outdoor shed that stored the snowmobiles.

Time had just become the enemy.

 

* * *

 

Twenty minutes later, Ben surveyed the destruction caused by the avalanche. A sea of knocked-down trees, ripped by the roots from the ground, covered the terrain to the right of the Dragon’s Bowl. The forest to skiers’ left remained pristine. If Roy had been on the demolished side of the run, for sure the avalanche crushed him. Ben’s gut wrenched, but his job demanded he suppress his emotions and get on with the search.

“Everyone turn your beacons to receive mode.” Ben pointed toward the toe of the avalanche. “Let’s start there.”

The team zeroed in on the spot. Each held a receiver aimed toward the surface. No one spoke. Boots crunching on snow, the swish of ski pants rubbing together and heavy breathing disturbed the silence.

The thunder of a helicopter distracted Ben. He crouched, tucked his chin to his chest and waited for the helicopter to land. The blades whipped wind and snow in all directions. The side door opened. A man with two search dogs jumped to the ground and duck walked away from the blades. Once they were at a safe distance, the helicopter took off.

The handler released the dogs and commanded them to start at the toe. The dogs ran in a zigzag pattern with their noses to the snow, barking repeatedly, moving from lower to higher altitude. The red vests the dogs wore kept them visible but didn’t hamper their movements.

“I’ve got a signal,” a patroller said.

Ben clomped over chunks of snow and joined the searchers. Each person held a receiver close to the ground, taking one careful step forward after another.

“Here,” another patroller yelled.

The patrollers closest used their probes and searched beneath the snow. Minutes passed, but they found nothing.

“Over here,” the dog handler shouted. “They’ve got a scent.”

Fifty meters away, the dogs scratched at the surface, tails wagging, indicating a find.

The patrollers who were probing near the transceiver signal walked toward the dogs.

“No,” Ben said. “Keep to your area.” He radioed the rescuers higher on the mountain to join the dog handler.

A patroller in the toe of the avalanche waved at Ben. “I’ve hit something.”

Ben grabbed his shovel from his pack and connected the two ends together. Even though his body ached to slam the blade into the snow, he shoveled carefully. “I can’t find anything. Keep probing.”

Ben shoveled more snow.

Clunk.

The tip of his shovel rested on a solid object.

“Careful now,” Oliver said.

Ben removed snow surrounding the object, and part of a transceiver peeked through the surface. Dropping to his knees, he dug with his hands, feeling for Roy’s face. “Step back. I need some room. We don’t know which way his body is oriented.”

A few more scoops of snow out of the way, and Ben stopped digging. He leaned his head into his hands and closed his eyes.

“What?” Oliver asked.

Ben turned to his boss. “It’s his transceiver. It’s been ripped from him.”

Oliver leaned over Ben’s shoulder. “Is the whole pack there?”

“Just the pocket.”

Several members of the rescue squad were perched on snowmobiles at the top of the bowl, waiting for instructions from Ben. He waved them over and showed them where to probe. “Concentrate on any change in texture below the surface.”

Infused with the energy of desperation, the rescuers formed a line crossing the run. With heads down, each person pushed a probe carefully through the snow.

Down slid the probes. Up came the probes. One careful step forward, down slid the probes again. A dance of grace in grim circumstances.

Frozen breath puffed in front of Oliver’s face, hiding his expression. “Call Roy again. That could be anybody’s gear.”

Ben did as his boss instructed and tapped Roy’s name on his cell display. The call switched to voicemail. He looked at the team and shook his head. Closing his eyes for a moment, his eyelashes froze together. He pinched his lashes between his thumb and index finger and melted the ice. A gust of wind, bringing in a storm as if it were a bad omen, stung his cheeks.

 

* * *

 

Ben leaned close to Oliver, cupped his hand around his mouth and said, “We’re only focusing on Roy, but what if two people were up here?”

Oliver lifted the earflap of his helmet. Ben knew since he’d lost his lobe, the cold bothered him. He’d had extra thick flaps custom made to protect his ears. “There’s been no sign of anyone else.”

“I think we need to expand the search, just in case.” Using his radio, Ben asked the team on the upper quadrant to return to where he sat on his snowmobile. Once every member waited before him, he checked his watch and wrote the time in his notebook. “Let’s start the grid search again but a little farther up.”

If the avalanche buried Roy, he’d run out of time, but they had to try. Even if it was only to find his body. Fucking hell. Why had he argued with Roy?

“Hey,” a shout came from the dog handler. “We found part of a backpack.”

The temperature on the thermometer attached to Ben’s jacket zipper read minus twenty-seven degrees Celsius. The burn of frostbite stung his cheeks. Without thinking, he took a deep breath, and the cold air made him cough.

The dog handler passed Ben the scrap of backpack.

Ben worked his jaw in frustration. The scrap had a Canadian flag sewn onto the canvas. A beaver was embroidered onto the corner of the flag. Without the beaver, the flag could have belonged to anyone, but Kalin and Roy had a tradition of putting the flag together with the beaver, representing Canada. Their stepdad had started the tradition when they were young, and they’d carried it on as they grew older.

His training taught him that once buried, the heat of a person’s breath solidified the snow, cutting off the air supply. With each passing minute, the ice surrounding Roy’s face became thicker. The rescue team continued the search, just not as frantically as before. No one mentioned the words “recovery mission”, but they were probably all thinking them. Ben eyed the weather.
Safety first.

A patroller radioed Ben from higher on the mountain. She’d been searching the terrain above the avalanche. Between heavy breaths, she said, “There are tracks directly above where the slide started.”

“How close?”

“Close enough that the avalanche could have been triggered by a person.”

“Roy?” Ben asked.

“We’ve no way of knowing.”

“Did you follow the tracks to see if they disappeared into the avalanche’s path?”

“The wind’s too strong up here. Most of the tracks have already been obliterated. There was only a few feet and then nothing.”

The glint of something shiny poking out of the snow caught Ben’s eye. He sidestepped closer and pulled a bent ski pole into the air. He spoke to the group nearest him. “Use your probes here and work your way up.”

Ben phoned the mountain operations administration assistant and asked him to check the number on the pole against the list of patrollers. He heard him click on his keyboard and his intake of breath.

“The pole belongs to Roy.”

“Can you find Turner? I don’t know if anyone has told him about the avalanche yet.”

Ben turned back to Oliver. “Now we know.” He called Roy’s girlfriend, Jessica, and the call switched to voicemail. Then he tried Kalin and got the same result.

Other books

Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham
The Difference Engine by Gibson, William, Sterling, Bruce
Operation Christmas by Weitz, Barbara
Summit of the Wolf by Tera Shanley
Sassinak by Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon
The Greek's Baby Bargain by Elizabeth Lennox
Stone's Kiss by Lisa Blackwood