JESSE KNEW he had no one to blame but himself. True, Steve had made volunteering to work in the Mount Washington Observatory sound romantic, which had been a lie. There was nothing romantic about cleaning up after seven people, washing dishes, and cleaning toilets. Steve was there with him, but their romance had died months ago. Yes, the view was spectacular, but now that the two of them had settled into just being friends, the view wasn’t enough to make up for the tedium of the job.
Still, Steve hadn’t forced him to volunteer, and Jesse had read the job description: one week on top of Mount Washington, bunking with three full-time staffers and two interns. The observatory studied weather patterns and climate on the mountain famed for having the worst weather in the world. And to free up the staff for their jobs, volunteers came in to do the cooking and cleaning in week-long shifts, from Wednesday to Wednesday. Jesse’s shift was almost over, and he couldn’t wait to pack his things and book it back down the mountain tomorrow. He just wasn’t a mountain man. He knew that now. There was a stark beauty to the landscape, especially on days when it was possible to look out over the entire Presidential Range. But above all, it was windy and fucking cold. What Jesse had been longing to do more than anything this entire week was curl up in front of one of the propane heaters with a good mystery novel.
In the meantime, he still had catfish with lemon butter to scrape off the industrial cooking pans used in the observatory kitchen. Steve had cooked it, so Jesse had the honor of cleaning it. He couldn’t really complain about that part—it had been delicious. Steve was a great cook. Jesse didn’t really mind getting cleanup duty. But he was still glad to finish up and escape for a while.
He passed through the common area, where one of the observers—Leo—was napping on one of the three brown couches. Bandit, the black-and-white angora that resided in the observatory, glanced up from her nap between Leo’s feet before deciding Jesse wasn’t exciting enough to wake up for. Jesse was half-tempted to take a nap on one of the other couches, but he really needed some fresh air, even if it required bundling up. It was October, and the monitors in the station indicated a moderate fall day at the base of the mountain. But the temperature on the observation deck was a good fifteen degrees lower. Nobody with any sense would wander around outside without a ski jacket.
He spent some time on the observation deck of the Sherman Adams building, the large crescent-shaped structure that housed not only the observatory but also the ranger station and the museum, though the view wasn’t very impressive since everything was shrouded in fog. There was a husband and wife trying to look out over the Presidential Range with binoculars and bitching about the fact that they couldn’t see anything. The only other person there was a young man, probably just a few years older than Jesse. He wasn’t half-bad to look at—kind of thin and pale, with cool blue eyes. Jesse casually wandered over his way to see if he could strike up a conversation.
The guy wasn’t wasting his time trying to see out through the mist. His focus was on the Cog Railway station below the observation deck, about a hundred feet away. Though what he was looking at, Jesse had no idea. Maybe just waiting for the next train.
“Hey,” Jesse said as he walked up beside him. They were close to the edge, which could be dangerous in high winds, but it was pretty calm at the moment.
The guy glanced up at him and said distractedly, “Hey.”
“Are you waiting to take the train down?”
The young man looked at Jesse as if he was annoyed, and then looked away again. “No, I’m camping.”
He was lying. Jesse knew what kind of gear was suited to camping on the mountain. He’d done it himself a couple of times with Steve, back when they were dating. And this guy just wasn’t dressed for it. His jacket was a good-quality ski parka and the hat pulled down over his hair was a warm knit bobble cap, but he hadn’t brought a scarf or gloves. And where was his backpack? Even if he’d left most of his gear back at a campsite somewhere, he seemed poorly dressed for the weather. He might have been an idiot, of course. They weren’t unheard of. State park volunteer rescuers had to risk their lives often enough to save hikers who were trapped by sudden blizzards or suffering from hypothermia when the temperatures dropped. But Jesse suspected this guy had come up on the train earlier in the day. He was just brushing Jesse off.
So screw him.
Jesse said, “Cool,” and wandered away, leaving him to watch the train platform. The Cog was due in soon. Jesse thought it might be worth going down to see who got off. If he was lucky, there might be a cute guy or two who could spare him more than one-word sentences before he had to get back inside and start preparing dinner with Steve.
He went down the steps from the observation deck and arrived at the platform just as the Cog was pulling in. The train was kind of an oddity. Due to the steep incline it traversed on its climb up the mountainside, the engine and water tank had to be tilted toward the front so it would be level while running. This meant it was aimed at the ground when the tracks were level.
In a few minutes, he heard the rattling of metal wheels approaching, and it wasn’t long afterward he saw the slow-moving train coming out of the mist, belching steam. It didn’t move much faster than a man walking, if the man were walking on level ground, but the fact that it was coming straight up the mountain made the climb a bit less than an hour. That was a lot faster than a hiker could climb the mountain, especially in the winter. Of course, tickets were a little steep. Jesse had never ridden the train himself.
He glanced up to see if the guy he’d spoken with was still watching from the deck, but he couldn’t find him. Maybe he was on his way down.
There weren’t many people on the train this trip—just eleven. Six weren’t particularly interesting to him. There were a couple of little kids, around nine or ten years old, attached to an elderly couple. He assumed they were the kids’ grandparents. And there was a married couple in their thirties. Male and female, despite the fact that New Hampshire had adopted same-sex marriage a few years ago. Jesse could see their wedding rings but guessed they might be newlyweds from the way they were hanging all over each other.
Four of the passengers looked about Jesse’s age—one girl and three guys. And they were sticking by each other as they got off the train, so he guessed they were a group of college friends taking a tour. They had another girl with them, perhaps about sixteen or seventeen. She had the same long blonde hair and delicate features as the older girl, so Jesse assumed they were sisters. One of the guys was decent-looking, if a bit scruffy, but it was the other two—obviously brothers—who caught Jesse’s eye. They were redheads and so starkly handsome they could have been models.
“Stop leering,” a voice said behind him, and Jesse turned to see Steve smirking at him. Fortunately, they were far enough from the platform that the passengers couldn’t overhear them.
“I can look.”
Steve didn’t have to ask which ones he was looking at. “Think they’re twins?”
“No.” Jesse directed his gaze back to the brothers again, trying not to be too obvious about it. True, they looked almost enough alike to be twins. “You see the one with the green scarf? He’s the older brother. Maybe by a year or two.”
“They look the same age to me.”
Jesse shook his head. “He keeps slapping his brother on the back, and he’s ordering everyone around.” The guy was pointing in different directions, asking questions, and waiting for the others to nod their understanding.
“So he’s bossy,” Steve said, unconvinced. “Some twins are like that—one always takes charge.”
“I suppose,” Jesse said. “But I don’t think so.”
Steve laughed. “Whatever you say, Jessica,” he said, falling back on the nickname Jesse hated—Jessica, because he wanted to write mystery novels and was always observing people like the main character, Jessica Fletcher, in Murder, She Wrote. “I’m going back inside. Don’t forget you have chocolate chip cookies to bake.”
“I won’t.” Jesse let him go, his attention still focused on the tourists.
The younger brother seemed oddly complacent, as if he didn’t care about anything going on around him. He was not only taking orders from his brother, but from the older girl as well. She wasn’t making him march up and down the platform or anything, but she made him hold her purse when she got the bizarre notion to refresh her lipstick.
Girlfriend. Definitely. Unless they were married. But she had a ring on her finger. He didn’t. More likely, they were engaged.
“Will you get rid of that fucking thing?” the guy’s older brother asked, loud enough to be heard where Jesse and Steve were hanging out. “You look like a fag.”
The girl gave him a scathing look, but his brother just held the purse out as if it didn’t matter to him what happened to it.
The girl took it back with an irritated snatch of her hand. “Don’t be so macho.”
Whatever else she said was too low for Jesse to overhear, but just before the group of friends moved away toward the observation platform, the younger brother glanced around and his gaze fell on Jesse. It was just for a moment, but as their eyes met, Jesse saw something that disturbed him, something… off. The guy smiled slightly, but even from that far away, Jesse could see there was no joy in that smile. It wasn’t just that he seemed sad. It was the look of someone who’d given up caring about anything. And his eyes….
They seemed completely lifeless.
DINNER WAS going to be tortilla pie, another dish Steve cooked particularly well. Jesse had baked his cookies for desert, and they were cooling on the counter. Now he was helping to dice up tomatoes and lettuce for the main dish.
“They were cute,” Steve said, referring back to the brothers they’d seen on the platform a couple of hours ago, “but if you ask me, the friend was much cuter.” Steve always went for the scruffy types, which was part of the reason he and Jesse were no longer together. Jesse was a bit straight-laced—he kept his black hair pretty short and never let his beard get beyond five o’clock shadow, even when every other guy at the observatory had given in to a full beard.
“Do you think he’s gay?” Jesse asked. He didn’t really care, but speculation about the sexual orientation of cute guys was always a source of entertainment.
Steve shrugged as he put his shoulder into stirring the pot of thick refried beans. “Didn’t really get a chance to talk to him. He didn’t look gay….” Meaning he didn’t look like the type to go clubbing—perfectly coiffed and dressed in clothes that cost a fortune. Steve hated guys like that.
Before Jesse could think of a response, Reggie burst into the kitchen. He was still dressed for outside and he was panting a bit, as if he’d been running. “Hey! Are either of you guys free?”
Jesse and Steve stared at him blankly for a second before Steve asked, “Why?”
“We have a missing person,” Reggie said, wiping his mouth with the back of a thick insulated glove. “A guy who came up on the Cog. His friends are freaking out. The sun’s going down soon, so anyone who can join in the search would be appreciated. Carol and Leo are already out there with Rory.”
Steve glanced at Jesse. “I have cornbread in the oven….”
“You deal with that, then,” Reggie said. “Jesse, come out if you can. Make sure you have one of the walkie-talkies.”
He took off, and Jesse followed, stopping to bundle up near the door. He was already wearing long underwear and a sweater over his long-sleeved shirt. That was typical everyday wear for the staff. He slipped on the same boots and ski jacket, but he opted for a balaclava underneath his ski cap to keep his face warm, and thick mittens instead of gloves.
Outside, the fog had grown heavier and more dangerous for an inexperienced tourist wandering around the peak. The observatory and surrounding buildings were in the middle of an expanse of barren rock—not a solid slab, but a moonlike landscape of massive boulders and rubble that could be treacherous to navigate even in the best visibility. In conditions like this, it would be easy for someone to fall and hurt himself or even stumble into a crevasse or off a cliff. As the sun began to set, the temperature dropped dramatically. Wandering around lost could prove fatal for someone not adequately dressed.
Jesse caught up with Reggie, who told him, “His name is Stuart. He came up here with his older brother and three friends a couple hours ago, and he’s been missing for about an hour. No real hiking experience, and he’s not properly dressed for anything but a day hike. Gray-and-yellow jacket with a yellow knit ski cap. Ted’s been having a hell of a time with his friends.” Ted was one of the park rangers currently stationed on the peak. “They’re totally freaking out, not that I blame them. But the last train is heading down in a half hour. They need to be on it, whether we’ve found their friend or not.”
Jesse was shocked to discover the guy he’d been observing on the platform earlier was the one missing. It felt almost as if he knew him, even though they hadn’t spoken. Jesse could see the older brother and the others arguing with Ted on the platform. He could understand them not wanting to leave, under the circumstances, but there were no facilities for them to spend the night—the entire Sherman Adams building was closed to the public after hours. And the last thing the rangers needed was to have another tourist get lost or injured wandering around the mountain at night, especially ones who weren’t dressed properly for the weather. The safest thing was to leave the search and rescue to the rangers and the observatory staff while Stuart’s friends and family returned to the hotel and waited for word.
Of course, that was easier said than done. Jesse couldn’t imagine what it would be like to leave a family member behind, trusting strangers to find him. At any rate, he remembered what Stuart had been wearing, so he knew what to look for. There was no point hanging back at the station.
“Now don’t go thinking you’re some hotshot because you’ve been up here with us for a week,” Reggie warned as they stood looking out across the gray landscape to the north of the observatory. “You’re still inexperienced, and I don’t want to have to send a search party out looking for you. Got it?”
“You should be able to see the light from the tower, even in the fog, so you keep that in sight. Watch where you’re climbing and don’t try anything macho.”
Jesse bit back a wiseass reply and settled for nodding. “I know.”
Reggie snorted skeptically but left him to it.
Jesse made his way across the rocks as the sky darkened, half the time having to use his hands as much as his feet. Despite the week at the observatory and having hiked up here a couple of times with Steve, Reggie was right, and Jesse knew it—he didn’t know the area that well. So he circled around, keeping the tower in his field of vision. He shouted Stuart’s name and heard others shouting it in the distance, but there was no answer.
As the last hint of sunlight faded from the gray sky, his walkie-talkie crackled. He answered it, speaking through the insulated fabric of the balaclava, and Reggie told him, “The train waited as long as it could. Stuart’s friends and family have gone down to the hotel to wait. Nobody’s reported anything.”
“Roger. Still searching.”
“Come in if you get too cold, and for fuck’s sake, don’t get lost.”
It was maybe a half hour later, when the temperature had dropped to the point where Jesse was seriously considering going in to warm up a bit, that he found something. A large boulder at the top of a ridge with something dark on it. He was using his LED flashlight now, and as he approached, he saw the dark spot glistened in the blue-white LED light.
It was blood. An irregular spot about three inches in diameter, and it was frozen solid.
Jesse looked past the rock and saw Stuart lying at the bottom of a steep incline, as if he’d rolled down. He was lying face up and not moving.
“Stuart!” Jesse shouted. There was no response. He scrambled down as quickly as he could without slipping, only thinking to grab his walkie-talkie when he was at the bottom, kneeling beside the young man. “Reggie! I found him!”
“How is he?”
Stuart didn’t look good. In fact, he didn’t even look alive. His hat was missing and the right side of his head was caved in and covered in blood, frozen and coagulated in his short strawberry blond hair. Jesse wasn’t sure, but he thought he might be able to see some of the guy’s brain exposed, though it was hard to tell in all that mess. Stuart’s eyes were narrow slits and his skin was pale and bluish. He didn’t appear to be breathing. Jesse took off one of his mittens to feel Stuart’s neck, searching for a pulse. The wind bit into his skin like needles. He didn’t feel a heartbeat and the skin was ice cold. Jesse suppressed a shiver at the realization he was probably touching a corpse.
“I think he’s dead.”
“Jesus! Where are you?”
Jesse put his mitten back on and looked around. Fuck. The tower was out of sight. “Hold on!” He waved his light in the air over his head, ignoring Reggie’s tirade about getting himself turned around. It made a column of light in the heavy mist, slicing through the sky like a spotlight, though it wasn’t particularly bright. “Can you see my light?”
“Stay put and keep the light on,” Reggie ordered him. “We’re coming to get you.”
Jesse wedged the flashlight against a rock so it pointed straight up into the sky and left it there. Then he turned his attention back to Stuart, using the small LED light on his car keys to illuminate him. He was dead. At least, Jesse was reasonably sure of that. But he wasn’t an EMT, so he could be wrong. He didn’t know how to treat a head wound, but the one thing he was sure of was nobody could survive for more than a few minutes without his heart beating. It was probably too late, but he had to try. So he dredged up the CPR training he’d had a few years ago and went to work.
“HE’S DEAD, all right,” Ted said, bending over the body in the light of their flashlights. He and Rory, the other park ranger, had come out to join Jesse, along with Reggie and Carol, the third full-time observer. He’d taken over Jesse’s clumsy attempts at CPR, but Stuart still hadn’t responded. “I’m making the call,” Ted said. “I don’t have a watch. Who’s got the time?”
Jesse pulled a glove off and yanked his cell phone out of his pants pocket. “Six thirteen.”
“We can’t just leave him here,” Rory said. “Let’s get him inside.”
Ted stood up and shook his head. “Leave him where he is. He’s dead, and bringing him inside isn’t going to change that.”
“I don’t see any point in letting him freeze solid.”
Ted ignored him, using his flashlight to scan the path Stuart must have tumbled down.
“There’s a rock up there,” Jesse volunteered, aiming his own flashlight at the top of the ridge. “It’s got a big spot of blood on it. That’s probably where he hit his head.”
Ted grunted and climbed up the hill to take a look at it. The others stayed down at the bottom with the body.
“It seems odd that he wasn’t wearing a hat,” Carol observed.
Jesse had been wondering about that too. “He was wearing one this afternoon, when he got off the train.”
Ted must have overheard them, because he called out, “The hat’s up here!” when he reached the top. “I can see it wedged between a couple of rocks, about… ten feet away from where he hit his head.”
Jesse frowned and looked down at Stuart, whose dead eyes stared blankly back at him. Was it possible he’d taken his hat off before striking his head? Maybe he’d slipped and the hat had flown out of his hand just before his head hit the rock. It was possible, though it seemed unlikely.
Then Ted called down, “I can see a little blood on it.”
That clinched it.
“He was murdered,” Jesse said.