By William Gallagher
THE snow changed abruptly. Now she’d stepped over this invisible line, Claire could see the difference. Behind her, smooth white snow carefully tended by the ski company and carelessly tramped down, packed tight, by skiers walking to the bar. Ahead of her, the same white but now deeper and, in her first step, also clearly closer to being ice.
She’d stopped when her step made the sound of a crack. It was like hearing a distant starting pistol and it made Claire jump. Looking behind her as if she happened to have become separated from her friends, she checked out each possible position she could be seen from. There was a barman having a smoke. Two new amateur skiers laughing as they took an age to put on their skis. An older, experienced skier laughing with them to hide annoyance and to keep them happy to pay him.
Nobody was looking at her. As loud as that pistol crack sounded to Claire, it hadn’t been heard by anyone else. So she pressed on.
There was another crack, and another, and another, then she seemed to reach just impossibly deep snow and the only sound was her own swearing. Evening was coming on and without a ski stick to help her, movement up the hill was going to take longer than she had.
When she was higher up still, there was another change in the snow. It was still white before and white after but otherwise it was like crossing a tree line: suddenly passage was easier, quicker. The snow was packed together again, this time evenly by age and time instead of piled up, abandoned by snow ploughs shoving it aside.
Claire looked back once more and now she could hardly see the distant bar, could definitely not see any people back there. Could definitely see that no one was following her.
Another hour and she stopped again. For far ahead of her across a flat stretch of snow was the cabin. There were lights on yet even the very wood of the walls seemed warm and beckoning. Claire hesitated, her eyes taking in everything around the cabin yet, starting to become snow blind, she couldn’t see anything but the timber and a place to rest.
Martin was heating coffee when she opened the door. “Hello, Claire,” he said. “You made it, then.”
He shook his head. “Not yet. Too soon, really.” He raised an empty coffee mug to her and she nodded.
“Add some whisky to it, I’m frozen.”
“Later.” Martin poured some black, strong coffee and gestured for Claire to look at the table. There was an antique bottle of whisky there with four glasses. “For when we’re all here.”
“You stole his whisky?”
“I don’t think he needs it where he’s going.”
Martin and Claire sat at the table. Both of them conscious of the two empty chairs beside them. “It’s not as if it’s easy to get here,” said Martin. “They’ll make it. We’ve done a lot harder things. Did you have any problems?”
Claire shrugged. “I used the wrong passport coming in to Nepal. Must be nerves. Left India as Cassandra Clemons, entered Nepal as Mary Marshman. Just took out the first passport from my bag, didn’t think about it.”
“The great Claire loses her nerve – after it’s all over.”
“Well, didn’t you? When I think of what we did, how it could’ve gone wrong, how much it could’ve gone wrong. Makes me shake.” She held her coffee mug tighter. “And it would’ve been my fault.”
Martin stood up and walked around the long table. At his nod and at his outstretched hand, Claire got to her feet too. He hugged her. Pressed her head into his chest and she sank into the embrace. “You got us in,” he told her.
Claire shook and Martin moved his hand too low.
She broke away and walked to the window.
“Look out there,” she said. “Beyond the snow, beyond Nepal. The entire world. All just going along like it did, everyone wound up in their little worries, none of them knowing how close it came to all ending.” She turned back to Martin. “And then there’s us. When did we become like this? What gives us the right?”
Martin joined her at the window. “Look again. Nobody in sight. Everything silent but for the odd crack of the icy snow. It would’ve been completely silent for everyone. Everywhere. In the world. No survivors. Without us. What gave him that right?” He touched her arm. “We signed up to do exactly this, Claire. We knew what it meant, we knew the risks.”
“Everybody says that but nobody does. I didn’t. You didn’t either. I saw you. Back in the state room. You had that same look I did.”
“Okay, yes. But we’d lost contact with Stefan, I thought all bets were off.”
“Do you trust Stefan?”
“Literally with my life.”
“Then I’ve news for you. That pistol-cracking sound in the snow just now, it’s him. He’s here.”
Outside the cabin, Stefan laughed. He’d been pressed against the wood, listening, checking, making sure who was inside. Now he opened the door with a bang. “Those ears of yours, Claire. Come here.”
His arms surrounded her like a giant bear’s and he stood a whole third taller than Claire. “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?” he asked.
Right at chest level, though, his coat had frozen solid with ice and Claire swore at him. “Can’t take you anywhere,” she said. “Go warm up and we’ll continue this discussion when you’re not Frosty the Snowman.”
Martin stretched out his hand and Stefan grasped it, shook it and then together as one they broke off and turned the handshake into a palm slap. “Jesus, she’s right, your hand is cold,” said Martin. “Take this.” He reached for his own coffee mug on the table and handed it over.
Stefan held it tight. “At some point I’m going to have to drink this,” he said. “Which of you made it?”
Claire jerked her head toward Martin and then flicked her eyes at the ceiling. “Bad news,” said Stefan. “Maybe the baddest news ever. I might just wait for Bronwyn. I take it she’s not here?”
The capital of Nepal is Kathmandu and until a few minutes ago, that was about the only thing Bronwyn knew of the place. That and how nobody would be looking for the team there. Yet somebody forgot to tell that to the city’s police and now Bronwyn was learning its back streets very quickly.
She had taken a jacket off a table at one restaurant and an American’s baseball cap from the next one. Crossing the main square to get out of sight, she took a corner and planned to wait by the cafés there. Behind every tourist restaurant there’s a cheaper place for the locals and she was taking a chance that even on high alert, some police would stop there.
It was going to be a gamble of how long to risk waiting but already there was a police motorcycle stood outside the café. Bronwyn checked it out from a distance, recognising the type, knowing how quickly she could get it started – and then seeing the keys left in the ignition.
“You stole his whisky?” asked Stefan.
“Martin doesn’t think he’ll need it where he’s going,” said Claire.
“True enough.” Stefan looked at her. “Scary, isn’t it?”
“Oh, God,” said Martin. “You two have your therapy session, I’ll watch out for Bronwyn.” He left the table and went outside the cabin.
Stefan waited until the door was closed. “Give it a month and he’ll be lying down on a shrink’s couch, trying to explain his problems without revealing official secrets. ‘I need adrenaline,’ he’ll say and the shrink will nod, write it down on her little notepad and have no idea what kind of action that man thrives on. She’ll probably recommend one of those climbing wall things at the gym.”
He looked at Claire, now seemingly as small as her coffee mug. “Listen to me, Claire. If his future psychiatrist did know, if he could tell her, she would call him a hero. And if he were allowed to talk about all of us, she’d call all of us that.”
“It rather depends on your point of view.”
“No,” said Stefan. “It does not. Not this time. You spent two years undercover with that bastard, you know what he did.”
“He had his reasons, he wasn’t some black-hat villain.”
“You do what he did and yes, you are. Black hat. The lot.” He paused to look at Claire’s slight, small frame. Physically she looked more like a little girl than she used to. Yet her eyes looked a lot older than she was. Aged and shrunk by what they’d done. “Claire, it was our job. Assigned by people who know more about him than we ever could. And we knew enough. Assigned by people who do not do this for anything but the best reasons. And then who choose no one but the best people.”
“Cocked up this time, didn’t they?”
“I don’t think so. We were under-briefed, unprepared, thrown together -”
“- betrayed, lied to, shot at -” said Claire.
“And yet we did it. The only thing that functioned in this entire job was this team.”
Claire looked at Stefan. “You know someone will take his place. Now he’s gone, there is a vacuum. Someone else will step up and go right on with the same work.”
“If they were as bad, they’d have got rid of him themselves.”
“What if they did? Did you think of that?” said Claire. “What if they manipulated us into getting rid of him for them?”
“Then they cocked up, didn’t they? If they become as bad, we’re still out here, ready. We’ll be reassigned to go back and sort them out too.”
“The whole team together again.”
“Which I’d enjoy. But it won’t happen because we’ve done our job properly. Thoroughly.” Stefan raised his mug to her. “I just want Bronwyn to get here, I want to know we all made it out, then I’m okay with us going our separate ways. A one time job.”
“We are the best, though, aren’t we?”
“Now you’re getting it.”
“I mean, can you ever relax now? Knowing what we know, knowing that if things get this bad, maybe they will get us back together. Really, who else would they pick?”
“Then I hope Martin’s learning to make coffee.”
Claire gave him a shove. Her tiny fist wasn’t even a pinprick against his trunk of an arm but, beaming at her, he gasped as if wounded and she laughed.
“Listen,” she said. “Do you remember when Bronwyn stole that train?”
Stefan guffawed. “I know. A train. Insane.”
Martin opened the cabin door and leaned in. “Are you done? Then come have a look. I think she’s stolen a snow plough now.”
In the morning, Claire woke up sore from sleeping hunched over the table. Her neck hurt from where the empty whisky bottle had rolled under her chin. Stefan had trouble getting up off the floor. Bronwyn and Martin had taken the bed and were having difficulty separating their bodies.
Bronwyn pushed herself away from him. “I need coffee if you’re going to carry on like that.”
“Bad news,” said Stefan. “Maybe the baddest news ever.” He held up an empty jar. “There’s no more coffee.”
Claire stood up and stretched. She glanced out of the window to check that it was light outside and then she reached into her coat pocket. “There might be worse,” she said.
Outside, the sun had risen enough that the snow was as bright as a floodlight. There was no one around. Just the cabin, a snow plough and miles of uninterrupted white silence in all directions.
From inside the cabin there came what sounded like a short, sharp crack of ice. It was followed by another. And a third.
The door opened and Claire came out. She looked around and then put an American baseball cap on to shield her eyes. Closing the cabin door behind her, she crossed to the snow plough and began the long drive back to work.
© William Gallagher 2016