Episode 1. Lake Abandon
CC didn’t think about the dead man. Not here in the mountains. She didn’t conjure the image of the corpse shoved into the bow of Virgil’s boat or the sound of its engine puttering into Lake Superior. She rarely recalled her brother's face, heading back to shore, a stern composure commanding his face. She didn’t think about the silent, brooding drive home in the rain.
“Witt,” she called. “You coming?”
“Yeah,” came back a voice. “We’re waiting for Fantine.”
"We have to set up camp," CC shouted, “storm clouds are rolling in.” CC kicked stones across the overhanging rock, crept closer to the cliff, and gazed at the placid lake far below. One of many jeweled spots sequestered among the remote, rugged Idaho mountain ranges. Wish I had come alone, she thought. She walked back to the trail, leaned against a tree, picked off a chip of torn bark, and rubbed it between her fingers. Scraping a clump of mud from her boot, she noticed a small aperture between the leather and sole where the stitching had given way. I need new boots, she thought, irritated.
“Witt, where are all of you?” CC shouted. This time without disguising the annoyance in her voice.
“I’m here,” Witt cried out, matching her tone of voice. He appeared from a steep turn on the path, wiping sweat from his brow and neck. “What’s the rush, CC?” He panted. “This mountain going to blow up or something?”
CC rolled her eyes. “You’re a baby.”
“And you’re a bully,” Witt snapped.
“I shouldn’t have brought you,” CC grimaced, “or Miles and Fantine.”
“And we shouldn’t have come,” Witt lashed out the words.
“Lucky I’m not leaving you all behind and going my own way.” Escalating anger.
"Go ahead. We'll find our way back.” He grunted and looked in the opposite direction.
CC shook her head. Though a beginner’s climb, Moscow Mountain had steep precipices, narrow trails, and unstable rock ridges. Getting injured or lost could be disastrous, even fatal. She pulled her long, thick ponytail off her shoulder and adjusted her cap, surveying the sky. Heavy rain and strong winds were minutes away.
They heard Fantine’s familiar chatter. She and Miles emerged from the steep turn. Fantine was eating a Snickers bar. When she caught sight of CC and Witt, she screamed. “We found you!” Grinning. “We thought you were lost!”
“Fantine, I'm not lost. You're slow.” CC glared at her.
Fantine stopped chewing. “What? We were going as fast as we could.” She frowned. “We’re supposed to be having fun, remember CC?” She bit into the candy bar.
Miles tripped and bumped into Fantine, jettisoning her half-eaten candy bar into a shrub. “That was my last snack, Miles,” she yelled.
“Sorry,” replied Miles with a diffident air. Tall, lanky, with smudged, horn-rimmed glasses perched off-center on his crooked nose. He looked at CC. “How far to camp?”
“Couple of miles,” CC answered, resigned. “Tie your shoes, Miles. Better put your rain gear on.” They started the 1000-foot descent, crisscrossed the lower ridge, down to a small gorge, then along the lower shelf to the shoreline of the inland lake. The rain came in spasms. A massive bulge of shore appeared. CC dropped her knapsack. "Here’s where we’ll camp.”
Fantine stared in bewilderment. “This is it?”
“Yep,” said CC, enjoying Fantine’s disappointment. “Did you expect a Hilton?” She grinned. “Better set up your tent. I’ll make a fire.”
“I’m starving,” said Miles.
"Grab some trail mix and jerky in my bag," Witt said, hastily picking up sticks and small logs for the campfire. "Everything's soaked,” Witt grumbled. “Good luck starting a fire, CC.”
“We’ll have a fire,” she said confidently. Witt wandered away, combing the beach for starter wood. CC watched him. He knows he’s handsome, she thought, irritated that she was looking at him — athletic, lithe, dark bristled hair, well-defined, angular face. Looks like the Marlboro Man, she mused and looked away.
By dusk, the clouds had dispersed, yielding a clear moonless night sky. They sat close to the roaring fire and devoured the soup and bread. Fantine’s stories, Miles’ laughter, Witt’s torrential teasing, CC stoking the fire. Witt sat across for her, glancing at her every few minutes. By midnight, Fantine and Miles retired to their tent. Witt and CC huddled near the fire.
“Mind if I don’t talk,” Witt ventured.
CC looked up from the fire. “I prefer it that way.” She smiled. “Nothing personal, just like the quiet out here.”
“Me too,” he replied. "Sky seems infinite." His voice was soft and warm.
An hour later, Witt mumbled goodnight and disappeared behind his tent flaps. CC reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a wrinkled, sealed envelope. She opened it and leaned toward the firelight.
Got your letter about climbing Seven Devils Mountain. Good.
I’m leaving for Alaska tomorrow. Packed the GS, planned my route, and gear is ready.
I'll swing through Moscow and see you. I should be there around the 10th of October.
CC folded the letter into her pocket and smiled. She looked back at Witt’s tent. Closed in with his flashlight pointing down, probably reading Dostoyevsky. The light transformed the tent into a giant yellow globe against the stygian blackness of the surrounding lower mountain ridge. With a long stick, she urged a log into the center of the flames, its moist bark hissing and spraying renegade sparks into the air. The high-pitched warble of shrews foraging in the deep brush sounded just outside the halo of the campfire's light. She lay back against the damp earth, a spongy moss from the afternoon rain, cradling her head in her palms, her bare feet angling toward the fire’s warmth. Under the confetti of stars and glint of the silver moon, she dreamt of Lake Abandon.
The Mountain Bluebird Grill was crowded, even for a Saturday night. In ceaseless motion, the waiters and waitresses swept through the kitchen doors with huge trays of appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Cocktails lined up on the bar --- tumblers of nut-brown scotch and whiskey, pale pink martinis in classic sleek glasses. Servers set them onto trays and rushed to thirsty customers.
She strode over to Witt in the kitchen.“Nice work. All the women at the corner table are in love with you.” She snapped her towel against his arm. “Big tip coming your way.”
“Well, charm has its rewards.” He buzzed past her with a tray of fettuccine alfredo, grilled salmon and vegetables, and a thick filet mignon engulfed in mashed potatoes. CC collected two martinis from the bar and served them to the young couple staring at each other with deadpan expressions. On her way back to the kitchen, she noticed a man sitting alone at a corner table, watching her. She darted her eyes away.
Witt was back in the kitchen. “He’s here again,” he mumbled as he walked by her with an empty tray. “Just sat down.”
“Who?” CC asked.
"That guy I mentioned. He’s been here every couple of weeks. Looks like a young Sean Connery. The Big 007. Always seems to take the corner table in your section.”
CC rolled her eyes. “So what?”
“I think he’s here because of you.” Witt fixed his eyes on her face, ignoring the buzzing kitchen. “Only shows up when you’re working.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said, annoyed. “I’ve only waited on that guy a few times. He keeps to himself.”
Witt grinned. “Oh, so you remember him?”
“Get back to work, Witt. Stop imagining things.” She poked his arm with her pen and grabbed the appetizers and breadbasket for the party of eight. They looked hungry. She avoided walking past the man’s table. Witt might be right, she thought. She had waited on him for the first time about a month ago. He ordered quietly and quickly, ate slowly, drank two glasses of a Portuguese red, and lingered after his dinner, sipping brandy from a sniffer. Then he was gone, leaving a crisp $100 bill sitting under his glass. Weeks later, he returned. Same table, same routine, no conversation.
Witt was back. “Want me to take his table?
“You just want his big tip,” she replied, brushing past him.
“You can have his tip. I don't care. Just trying to help."
Will’s furrowed expression made her laugh. “I don’t care. He doesn’t bother me. But go ahead.” CC nodded to a woman who was waving her empty glass.
Witt straightened his black, clip-on bowtie and grinned. “You know I’m right. The last time James Bond was here, he never took his eyes off of you.”
“You’re ridiculous,” CC replied, fumbling in her apron pocket to check an order. “And stop calling him that.”
This night, though, the man didn’t stay. He finished his meal and a glass of wine, picked up his reading glasses and a small leather case, and left. CC watched him walk out the door, surprised by the pang of disappointment that swept through her. The man hadn’t even glanced in her direction all evening. She looked back at Witt, standing by the man's table, grinning and waving his $20 tip. CC rolled her eyes and frowned, then headed for the bar to pick up her order. She brought Manhattans to the two couples at the far-end table and the third round of Sidecars to the three women across the room. Tips would be good tonight, she thought, but fatigue was taking over. She’d been up early to catch the sunrise for an early hike. She checked her watch. Done in an hour, home to a hot shower and bed.
“CC," said Witt, strolling up to her with a bemused expression. "I've got something for you."
“Witt, I’m not in the mood for your stupid tricks. I just want to finish this shift and get home."
"Not a trick. Witt flashed a business card cupped in his palm. "This is for you. It was on that guy’s table, under the $20.” Witt flipped the card deftly between his fingers.
CC cradled her empty tray and walked into the kitchen, swinging the revolving door with force.
Witt caught the door before it hit him and followed her into the kitchen. “Don’t you want the card? It’s for you.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s got your name on it.”
CC’s eyes widened, belying her surprise. “Fine, give it to me then.” Feigned nonchalance.
Witt handed the card to her, studying her face.
“Stop staring at me. Go away.”
Witt shuffled away with a feigned pout. CC slipped the business card into her apron pocket, served desserts, and filled coffee cups. The three tipsy women had another round of cocktails for dessert. The oldest embarked on a loud, vociferous attack on her ex-husband's character accompanied by slurred speech, trailing sentences, and fits of tearfulness. Waiting out her tirade, CC leaned against the amber-lit granite bar and reached for the business card. In bold Britannic font was a name: Magnum Pierce and a phone number. She flipped the card over. Written in small, neat letters: CCM, how about dinner with me? An unwitting smile spread across her face. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and re-read it.
Just before midnight, she headed for her car. Witt followed, throwing himself into the passenger seat. His trailer was only a few miles from her apartment, and they often traveled to work together.
“I told her to forget it. No way I'm going out with her." Witt was already well into his topic, leaving CC to figure it out.
She remembered. Witt was talking about a student in their Advanced Calculus class. "You didn't say that to her, did you?"
"Of course not. I told her that I was seeing someone else. That always works."
“Hmm, no matter that it’s a lie.” CC gripped the wheel to fight off drowsiness.
Witt laughed. "Sometimes, that’s better than the truth. No need to hurt her feelings.”
“It’s still a lie.”
“What, you never lie?”
“Nope, I don’t.” She glanced at him. “Truth’s all we got.”
"That's ridiculous, CC. You've been reading too much philosophy." Witt rolled down the window. “There’s love, you know.” He didn’t look at her.
“Shouldn’t be at the expense of truth. Or at least honesty.”
“Remind me never to get on your bad side,” Witt mumbled. He slugged CC gently on the arm. “So,” he said lightly, “James Bond asked you out to dinner?”
“I see you read his card?” CC arched her back and stretched.
"Of course, I did. 007 wouldn't have left it on the table if wanted only you to read it.”
CC laughed. "Point taken. And stop calling him that. It's stupid." A pensive pause. "Wonder how he knows my name.”
"He got the CC from your nametag. Not sure how he knew the M."
"Well, he creeps me out," CC mumbled. “What do you think he wants?
Witt laughed. "Come on, CC, what do you think he wants? You're hot."
She punched his arm. “I just rolled off a foothill.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re still hot.”
“Shut up, Witt, or you’re walking home from here.” She slowed the car and swerved toward the side of the road.
“I got it. Lighten up.”
CC's arms draped the steering wheel. Exhaustion converted her body to cement. Witt’s trailer was just ahead on the right, but the outdoor floodlight and the lamp inside his trailer were unlit. Junk and debris around the trailer were in the same place next to a rusted car suspended in the air by a tiny jack overburdened by its load. Empty bottles and crushed cans, candy wrappers, and bicycle tools and parts were scattered about the small yard. The door to his trailer still hung at an angle from its hinges.
“That’s weird,” commented Witt, stepping out of the car. “I always leave the lights on. I must have forgotten.” He walked to the trailer and reached inside for the light switch. “Thanks for the ride,” he said, stepping into the trailer.
"Yeah," CC remarked, waving, "see you Wednesday." She turned the car toward the road and glanced back at the dark trailer. What's taking him so long to turn the lights on? A flash of panic. Something’s wrong. She grabbed her knapsack and withdrew a 10” steel Gerber survival knife and a flashlight. Under the seat, wrapped in a leather casing, was Virgil’s Glock which he'd given her after dropping her murder weapon into Lake Superior. Along with the corpse. She unwrapped the gun and checked the magazine. It was loaded. She slid the knife out of its sheath and tucked it into her pocket, then the gun into the same pocket. She faced the trailer 500 feet away and started walking toward it.
From the dense treeline skirting Witt’s trailer, a man suddenly appeared. CC jumped backward, pulled the gun out of her pocket, and pointed it at him. The man stopped short, raising his arms. CC stood still. “Don’t come any closer,” she shouted. He stopped, hands still raised. "Who are you? What did you do with my friend?"
He lowered his arms. “Don’t mean no harm,” came a dull, hoarse voice. “I’m looking for someone and thought you might be able to help.”
“Where’s Witt?” CC asked.
My friend, the guy who lives here.”
“He’s probably in his trailer relaxing. I doubt he heard us." The man hadn't moved from his spot on the ground. CC glanced at the trailer. Lights flicked on, and Witt passed across the smudged window over the sink. BB King’s deep, shimmering voice rang out.
“What do you want?” CC kept the gun pointing at him.
“Must have gotten the wrong information. I thought you lived here.”
“I don’t. Who are you, and what do you want?" She shone the flashlight directly into his face.
“I’m from Harbore,” he said, squinting into the beam of light fixed on his face. “My name’s T-Bone Maast. I’m trying to find out what happened to my brother, RibEye. He disappeared from there a few years ago. Figure he's dead, but I'm still looking.”
CC’s mind somersaults. Consciousness pivots to primitive fear. She steadies her grip on the flashlight, the beam bouncing between his chin and neck. Grip of the gun. Voice detached and robotic. "You came from Harbore to track me down? What makes you think I know anything?” CC’s words were tumbling out.
“I heard from one of your brothers. I forget his name. He mentioned that you went to that old slaughterhouse a lot. And you were in college here. My brother liked that slaughterhouse too. I thought maybe you ran into him there, saw something?” T-Bone paused again. “We think he was there the day he disappeared.” He stepped toward her.
“Stay where you are,” CC ordered. She flickered the flashlight beam over his face. Good distraction technique she learned from Virgil long ago. “I don’t know anything about your brother.” I don’t even remember the last time I was at that place.”
“OK. I figured it was a long shot.” T-Bone shuffled his feet but didn’t move forward.
CC felt the muscles in her shoulders relax. She lowered the flashlight to the ground. “Get out of here. You're on private property." She stared blankly at him.
T-Bone turned away from her, sauntering back into the trees. She heard his footsteps, the start of an engine, tires crunching on the gravel. She waited a moment, then walked to Witt’s trailer and knocked on the door. Better make sure he’s all right.
“Who is it?” Witt called out.
"It's me, CC. I forgot to tell you something, so I came back."
Witt opened the door, grinning, flushed from a hot shower. He wore sweat pants and a long-sleeved shirt under a frayed terrycloth bathrobe. "Must be something important to turn you around and come back here."
"Yeah, well, I would have called, but ….. oh, that’s right, you don’t have a phone.”
Witt laughed. "Come on in." He bowed ceremoniously to the side, and CC walked in. The place was in its usual disorder. She sighed quietly. Witt had missed her encounter with T-Bone Maast.
“I’m going on a climb," she said. "I took two weeks off from work, so I'll see you when I get back."
"When?" asked Witt.
“Next week, right after my last final. Took two weeks off at work too.”
Witt leaned against the kitchenette counter. “Where?”
“Seven Devils Mountains.”
“Alone?” He looked at the floor and brushed his hand through his hair.
"Going with my brother. He's coming through town." Touched by his worried expression, she added, “We’ll be fine. Virgil’s an expert climber.”
Witt turned to the sink. He placed two glasses on the counter and reached for a bottle of Four Roses from the shelf. “Want a quick drink?” He knew she’d say no. I can never tell her how I feel, he thought. She’d never talk to me again. He poured some bourbon into a glass and raised it toward her.
“No, thanks, I have to get home.” He stood at the open door, watching her. She turned suddenly to face him, gestured an exaggerated curl, smiled, and walked to her car. Witt smiled and waved. He finished the bourbon and turned up the volume of Buddy Guy's What Kind of Woman is This?”
Budding rose tints of dawn spread across the eastern sky. CC was halfway to the trailhead. A three-hour climb and four-hour descent to Lake Abandon. A few days alone before heading back to Moscow to meet Virgil and then Seven Devils Mountains. This climb was good practice --- a westward ascent of steep vertical rock sheltering deep gorges to rushing river beds and dense, impenetrable forest.
She remembered the first time she set eyes on the glimmering aspen lake. Bored with classes after a week at the University, she headed 85 miles northeast of Moscow to the Couer d’Alene Mountains and climbed Cherry Peak, one of its two highest peaks at 7350 ft. By mid-morning, she rested on a granite boulder overlooking a vista of lodgepole pines, firs, and larch. Far below, tucked into a bowl-shaped cirque basin, was an enormous body of water. Its quiet, aqua surface reflected the scattered clouds and pristine pines clustered along its shores of sand, rock, and fallen trees. Remote, isolated, a glittering gem cupped within rugged rock and towering mountain. She stood transfixed. Just one of the hundreds of unnamed lakes that dotted the mountain ranges, she thought. Four hours later, she reached its shore, cut, scraped, scratched, and coated in mud. Stripping hurriedly, she waded into the cold shoulders of water, dipping down into the depths, then up to float on her back along the surface. Two bald eagles circled in the clear sky. She dove under again, brushes of weed against her skin. She swam to shore, fumbled in her knapsack for dry clothes, and set up her tent. By evening, fleeting clouds floated across the pearl-white sheen of a full moon. Hours later, she extinguished the fire and retreated to her tent, setting her knife and can of bear spray at her side, should wolverines, gray wolves, or a grizzly appear. Sometime during that night of luminous dreams, this nameless, unknown lake became her Lake Abandon. Leaving herself behind, becoming someone else, she was home at last.