The scene was as ancient as the Rocky Mountains themselves, unchanged since primordial man. Shafts of sunlight stabbed through a coniferous canopy, melting the last patches of snow which seeped into loam that had been undisturbed for centuries. The aroma of damp humus was a heady, musky scent that wafted between thick stands of hardwoods.
Borden Wilson moved like a shadow, his rifle blackened to avoid reflection, no clasp loose to tinkle and give warning. His step, first to toe, then heel, was as deliberate as a cat’s. He slipped slowly from tree to tree, dissolving into the gloom. Below, scarcely fifty yards away, walked his quarry …
The boy was four, maybe five; he was shrieking happily as he darted up the trail. He ran ahead of his parents who followed, unhurried, but never out of sight. They were not yet acclimated to being ten thousand feet above sea level. Their hearts hammering, limbs heavier, they might not even recognize altitude sickness. They were tourists from New England. Borden knew this by the license plate on their car parked a mile and a half away in a designated area. He knew, too, by the dipped inflections and nasal twang that gave an edge to their voices when they called their son.
“Stay on the trail, Tony. Tony, do you hear me?”
“Look, Daddy—ugh—what is that?”
The child was squatting, knees out, peering at the earlike lobes of Auricularia auricula—the only one of the jelly fungi that are commonly eaten in North America.
Borden was surprised to hear the father say as much.
“When it dries,” the man told his son, “it looks like liver.”
“Ugh, I don’t like liver.”
“It becomes tough and hard,” the father said. “In China, they call it Yung Nge or Muk Nge.”
The lesson was wasted. The child bounded ahead, his shrill voice stilling the call of native fowl. But creatures were there: chipmunks peered over stones gray with lichen, perching birds in boughs overhead watched the intruders.
The trail meandered upward, marked by color-coded signs advising the hikers as to distance traveled, how far yet to go. Borden kept pace with the family, putting himself in strategic places to intercept at will. But he wasn’t ready. Sometimes he stood no more than a dozen yards from them and they suspected nothing. On the other side of the trail, invisible except to Borden’s trained eye, Wang tracked the same threesome, the same way, letting them draw nearer the crest, nearer their destiny.
“What’s this one, Daddy?”
“That’s Phlogiotis helvelloides.”
The boy touched smooth gelatinous folds, the mushroom a deep rose in color. “Can you eat it?” the child inquired.
“You could eat that one.”
“I don’t want it, though.”
The man said to his wife, “That’s the same kind we used to make candied red jelly fungus, remember?”
She nodded, absently. Borden detected a subtle shift in mood, in her stance, a barely perceptible change in demeanor. Like a fawn which has not yet smelled or heard—but senses—danger.
“Don’t you think we ought to be going back, Harold?”
“The trail circles back.”
“The way we came, I mean.”
“Are you tired?”
He pulled her under his arm, protectively. “Tony is enjoying himself, Donna.”
She yielded, but again she scanned the hillsides. She had seen Borden without realizing it.
“Here’s another one, Daddy!”
The husband stepped off the trail to join his son. “That’s a different kind, Tony. I don’t know about that one. When you aren’t positive, you should never taste it—right?”
Watching the woman, Borden saw her exhale short, thin, misty vapors, her breath warmed by the exertion of the climb.
Perfect. Late twenties, body firm, almost athletic—a good figure under those blue jeans, well-rounded buttocks. Her eyes were large, expressive, complexion fair.
Wang was thirty meters beyond, also watching. He was a dappled shadow in a patchwork of sunlight, his camouflage suit and greasepaint breaking the contours of his face and body.
“Harold,” the woman said in a low voice, “let’s go back.”
“It’s only a two-mile trail, Donna. We’re more than half-way already.”
“Let’s go,” she urged.
He came back to her. “Is something wrong?”
“A little queasy.”
“It’s the altitude.” He looked about, a subconscious response to her distress, civilized man reacting to primitive stimuli. “It’s probably closer to go on ahead,” he said.
“Then let’s go.”
Harold called to his boy as the child labored toward the summit. “Tony, stay on the trail.”
The crest was a hundred meters more, the boy almost there. Wang flowed like water, putting himself in the lead. Borden remained with the parents, listening to the woman’s apology for cutting short their hike. The husband’s response was generous, but he was disappointed.
The child topped the trail, paused to look back, beckoned his father and mother, then turned to race downhill.
In that instant, Wang had him.
Beautiful! Not a sound. Like a whisper of wind the forest, a soft sigh en masse—out of the thicket came a hand to muffle cries, and the child was gone in the blink of an eye.
A magpie called, wink-wink-wink! A squirrel quarreled afar. The parents continued to climb, slowly, toward the summit. Borden turned away, moving quickly to a vantage point on the far side of the precipice. He heard the mother call, “Tony—wait for us!”
Her husband laughed. “It’s all downhill from here.”
“You told him to stay on the trail,” she said.
They paused where the boy last stood, gazing across the crowns of trees, up a canyon that bordered the National Park area.
The reply was her own voice, rebounding in ever-diminishing echoes.
“Yo, Tony!” the father shouted. The name rode the canyon walls in dying ripples. Silence. Distantly, the murmur of a mountain stream came as a muted drone. A hawk rode air currents along red and yellow cliffs, turning his head this way and that in search of sustenance.
“Yo, Tony!” The father, again. Before the wife could speak, Harold said, “He’s gone on to the car, Donna. Playing with us.”
She knew better. Borden could see she knew better. Women had a sixth sense about these things.
She began to run, scrambling, slipping, an awkward grace in the way she flung her legs out at the knees, grabbing passing vegetation for support, stones skittering. “Tony!”
Borden watched their panic ascend, voices drawn with mounting fear, the mother coming down the trail with no care for her own footing, impelled by a mindless dread.
He stepped into the open and she screamed, falling backward.
“Easy, lady, easy—what’s the trouble?”
He saw himself in their eyes: armed, booted, face painted, weapon blackened, clip in place. It was a clash of cultures. They were from the cocoons of civilized man, hot tubs, and thermostatically controlled environments; he was an atavistic apparition, as alien as a grizzly, part-man, part—
“My son,” she gasped. “Tony. We’ve lost him.”
“How long ago?”
The husband was here now. “A few minutes. Seconds.”
“Then he can’t be far. Give another shout.”
“Tony!” called the mother.
“Tony!” called the father.
Borden slung the rifle over a shoulder, joining them. “Tony!”
“Does this trail return to the parking area?” the father asked.
“Which one?” Borden mused. “There are dozens.”
“Oh, my God.” The woman shouted again, “Tony!”
“The park isn’t open,” Borden said. “It won’t open for another few weeks.”
It was a subtle accusation of irresponsibility and the husband rose to it. “We’re experienced hikers,” he said. “We hadn’t planned to go far.”
“No,” Borden said, ruefully. “They never do. This can be dangerous country.”
“Danger?” the woman said. “What danger?”
“Cougars. Bears. Mountain streams so swift a man can’t stand in them, can’t get up again if he’s knocked down.”
“Oh, my Lord, Harold.”
“City folks have died of dehydration a few yards from good water,” Borden expounded. “They become disoriented, careless. Fall in a crevasse, break a leg. Sound is funny in the mountains. Up canyon, if the wind is right, you hear a whisper. Another time, another day, you can’t hear screaming.”
The woman was trembling. Borden put an arm around her, squeezing. Firm. Supple.
“Hey, hey,” he said, “this happens every year. We’ll find the boy. But it is this kind of thing that keeps the park closed until the rangers check it out.”
“Check out what?” the husband snapped.
“Landslide,” Borden said. “Trail markers vandalized. Things like that.”
She drew away, stepping back. He had been stroking her shoulder as if distracted, but comforting.
“We can go to my place and call the rangers,” Borden offered. “Thirty minutes later, men, megaphones, maybe a helicopter—they don’t take this kind of thing lightly.”
“I … this … surely this doesn’t call for that kind of response,” the man asked his wife.
“Thing is—” Borden massaged his jaw— “up here tiny mishaps can become needless tragedies. We look an hour or two. Maybe we find the boy, maybe we don’t. It gets dark—well—”
“Harold,” the wife said, “you go to a telephone. I’ll stay here.”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Borden said, gruffly taking her arm. “By the time we get back, there will be two lost tenderfeet.”
“I won’t be lost. I’ll stay on the trail.”
“First rule of hiking,” Borden said, “stay together.”
“Tony may find the trail; he’ll come down. Harold, you make the call.”
“Amateurs get fearful and do fearful things,” Borden sighed. “I can’t leave you wandering around out here.”
He caught a wary glint in her eye and turned aside to put her at ease.
“Perhaps you could make the call for us,” the father reasoned. “We’d both stay here, on the trail.”
“Could, I suppose. Trouble is, I can’t describe your boy, what he’s wearing—or your car, or where you parked it.”
“It’s back up this trail.”
“Which trail? There are several converging into this one.” Borden consulted his watch, squinted at pure blue sky. “About four hours of day,” he said.
“Donna? What do you think?”
“You go. Tony may show up.”
“What we’ve got here is a deadlock.” Borden smiled. “I’m of a mind to leave you both and go alone. But the last time I did that, the rescue party came and the folks had found one another and left, too embarrassed to stay and admit how stupid they had been.”
Borden watched a solitary hawk swerve, dive at the cliff.
“I’ve lived in these mountains all my life,” he said. “If I leave you and things don’t work out, I take a lot of lip from folks. ‘Borden, you knew better,’ they say. And I do. City people are found frozen to death. This minute, it’s comfortable, but it’s midday and still. If we were wet, if a brisk wind came off those snowcaps—”
“Donna, he may be right.”
The husband extended a hand, “My name is Harold Morris. This is my wife, Donna.”
Borden shook their hands. “Borden Wilson,” he said.
“How long will it take us to reach a telephone, Mr. Wilson?”
Borden hunched his shoulders to ease the bite of the gunsling. “Be there in a few minutes,” he advised. “It’s a rough ride, but my rig can make it.”
“Let’s go, Donna.”
“No, Harold. I’m not leaving.”
“Donna, damn it—what he says makes sense. We’ll be back—half an hour at most. Right, Wilson?”
“Right it is.”
Borden was moving away downhill. The mother screamed her boy’s name, listened to it fade away mockingly.
“If you want to stay alive in these mountains,” Borden noted, “stay together. That’s S.O.P. Know what that means?”
“Standard operating procedure.” The husband’s voice dropped to an insistent command. “Donna!”
“S.O.P.,” Borden continued, moving away. “That’s how to stay alive.”
In double-low gear, with all four wheels pulling, Borden drove across streams swollen by melting snow, water rushing up the hood and over the windshield in roaring gulps, the mud tires clawing at slippery banks, lurching over turning stones. Their passage was parallel to two electric lines snaking up the canyon. Donna sat beside Borden, answering his questions with leaden dread.
“So how many kids you got?” Borden shouted over the deafening voice of the river.
“Nice little family. Where you from?”
“Boston—Massachusetts? I hear they have good lobster in Boston.”
“Yes. Good lobster.”
The husband leaned around his wife. “How much farther?”
“Two miles total from where we were. It seems slow, but we’re making way.”
The vehicle jolted, lurched, throwing the passengers back and forth. Borden deliberately paused, midstream, gunning the motor as if for added power. The vehicle broached, swept downstream a few yards. The woman gasped, clutching the dashboard with both hands. It was a bit of drama Borden had performed many times.
“So, what kind of work do you do?” Borden yelled.
The husband responded, “I’m a teacher.”
They struck a hole, water, blinding, ferocious, pummeling the windows, sweeping over the windshield. Borden backed away. His passengers were white, their lips bloodless.
“Too fast for good fishing,” Borden said. “You fish for trout, Harold?”
“Pan-fried,” Borden reminisced, “splash of lemon—you like trout, Mrs. Morris?”
She made no attempt to answer, her knuckles jutting, fingers glued to the dashboard.
“So where are you folks staying?”
“Rocky Mountain Lodge,” the husband said.
“Used to,” Borden volunteered, “I lived down in Longmont. Got too crowded. I moved to Gatlin Pass, but that gets crowded too, come summer. So I built a cabin back up in here. Hunt, fish, it’s a good life. Nobody comes this way.”
He changed the subject unexpectedly, with another question. “You have people hereabouts?”
“No. Goddamn, Wilson, this is a rough ride.”
“Said it would be. Just tourists?”
“Tourists,” Harold said irritably.
They reached higher ground, the stream more shallow, its flow slowing, the floor of the valley a narrow corridor between towering peaks strewn with boulders larger than houses. In the lee of one of these, Borden’s cabin was built hard against the side of the incline. There were two outbuildings. A cord of cut wood was stacked in a lean-to shed.
“There’s a telephone out here?” Donna questioned.
“And electricity and good water from the stream,” Borden said. He snatched up the emergency brake, retrieved his rifle from behind the seat, getting out.
The husband dismounted, helping his wife. The moment her feet touched the ground, Borden leveled his weapon at them. “Do exactly as I say,” he said, “and nobody gets hurt.”
“What is this?” Harold demanded.
“You want to see your boy?” Borden asked. “Do as I say.”
“You have Tony? You sonofabitch!”
“Come this way,” Wang called. For the first time they saw him. Wang held them in his sights every second. He stood in shadows that made his eyes dark slits, his white teeth stark flashes when he spoke.
“Hey, you guys, what’s going on?”
Wang lifted a door that was almost at ground level, the type covering a root cellar—which is what it was meant to seem.
“Get below,” Wang said sharply. “Move!”
“Is this a robbery, Wilson?”
Wang jabbed Harold with his rifle.
“We’re going nowhere.” Harold stiffened.
“Do it or die,” Borden said casually.
“Where is our son?”
“In the cellar. Go and see.”
Donna ran down the steps. The husband was facing them now, as if to block their passage below.
“Oh, my God, Harold,” the woman wailed. “They have Tony chained.”
“We will kill you,” Borden said, softly, “if that’s your wish. But if you do what we say, this will soon be done and you’ll be on your way home to Boston with an interesting tale to tell.”
It was a lie. Harold knew it—Borden could see it in his eyes. But his choice was nothing. One step at a time, the trembling man backed into the cellar.
“What are you going to do?” Donna cried. “Why are you doing this?”
Wang searched the husband, backed him to a wall. The cellar was deep—twelve feet from hard—packed soil floor to the thick beams overhead, with a foot of dirt atop that. The walls were built of similar timbers. It was cold year round, but fairly constant winter and summer.
Wang shackled the man’s wrists to pitons embedded in grommets slightly higher than Harold’s shoulders. He shoved Harold’s legs back, cuffing the ankles. The bottom restraints were so close to the wall, with the top ones built out a bit, that the captive was thrown forward, off center, hanging by the wrists, helplessly.
“Please,” Donna wept, “please—what are you going to do to us?”
“Make you a star,” Wang said laconically.
Borden watched the young Oriental close the top outer door, then bolt the lower, heavier bottom door. Borden lit a cigarette, his weapon still slung on one shoulder, and took a seat on the comer of a heavy worktable.
Wang stepped back, studying the weeping woman. “What do you think, Borden?”
“Looks damn good to me.”
“Those eyes, Wang—she’s the best one yet.”
Wang dabbed his fingers in cold cream and wiped greasepaint from his face with slow methodical strokes. “Man then boy?” he contemplated aloud. “Or, boy then man?”
“You’re the director.”
Wang peeled away his shirt. He had a tattoo of the U.S. Marine Corps emblem on one forearm. Borden set up two cameras, one on a tripod, the other hand held.
“Oh, merciful God,” Donna shrilled. “Harold, do you see what they’re going to do?”
The man bucked against his shackles, blood tracing one arm from the wrist. “Bastards!” he screamed. “You bastards!”
Wang transferred the boy to another place, the child dumb with shock.
“Please,” Donna begged. “Please don’t do this.”
Wang looked back at a TV monitor, moving this way and that in the picture. He adjusted a light to reduce a hot spot, another to eliminate a shadow. He looked at the woman, then the monitor. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re right about the eyes.”
The camera on the tripod focused automatically. Borden picked up the other, facing the husband to catch his response.
Wang reached for her blouse. “Action,” he said.