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       Moon Signs, p.10

           Helen Haught Fanick


  It was almost time for the others to come in and collect me for the lift ride, and my joints were stiff from sitting so long. I got up and wandered around in the food court, checking out the menus at the various stalls. The crowds were quickly clearing from the Bear Paw and the ski slopes.

  Andrea came in first, and then Maggie. “Stefan talked to the lift operator earlier, and he agreed to give us one last ride. I sent David over to the lift to wait with Stefan. I’m glad you wore your snow boots, Kathleen. I forgot to mention it last night, but you’ll have to walk on snow to get to the lift. Did you bring your scarf?”

  I brought it from the pocket of my parka, which I had put on by this time, and showed it to her. “It looks windy out there. I think I’ll need it.” I pulled my hood up and tied it under my chin.

  We trudged through the trampled snow to where Stefan and David were waiting by the stationary lift. “It’s a lot easier to get on with it stopped,” Stefan said. “You and I can get on in the first seat, and then the others can catch it on the fly.”

  We sat down on the slatted wooden seat, and Stefan lowered a metal bar across our laps, making me feel more secure. The lift lurched forward, and I looked back to see Andrea and David getting into the next chair. Maggie was waiting behind them. We glided upward with a faint rumbling sound, past deciduous trees that were bare of leaves but had branches piled with snow; even the slimmest twigs had a thin coating. Deep green evergreens were loaded, their branches sagging nearly to the ground.

  “It’s beautiful up here,” I said, and Stefan smiled and nodded. I turned and waved to the three behind us, and they waved back. I was surprised at how comfortable I was feeling. Then behind us, I heard the softest of sounds. It was so muffled, I couldn’t even describe it. Stefan turned an ear downhill, but didn’t say anything.

  I realized my face was freezing, and I removed my hood and tied my scarf over my mouth and nose, then raised my hood again. We were over a spot where the lift was high above the ground when we stopped with a jerk. My stomach did a little flip as our chair swung back and forth with the force of the sudden stop.

  I turned to look back at the others and caught a glimpse of something moving across a snowy patch in a stand of pines on our right. Although there was no moon, the Milky Way and a million other stars above us were shedding just enough light on the reflective snow that it was fairly easy to see the area around us. I imagined that what I’d seen was a deer. There certainly were plenty of them in the area. Andrea had turned back toward Maggie, and they were talking, although I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

  My feet and legs were beginning to feel the cold. I wiggled my toes. “I wonder what’s wrong.”

  Stefan looked completely relaxed. “I’m not sure why Franklin would have stopped the lift, but he knows what he’s doing. He must have had a good reason.”

  “And Franklin is . . .?”

  “Franklin Stuart, the lift operator. He’s worked here for years. He’ll start us up again in a minute.”

  I had a feeling that we should have reached the top and started on our way back down by now. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. I was wearing gloves, but my fingers were getting cold. I put my hands in my pockets. Maybe some conversation would take my mind off the creeping chill. “So how long have you lived here in the Canaan Valley, Stefan?”

  “I’ve been here for almost three years. Olga and I saw the opportunity to buy the Alpenhof shortly after we came, so we decided to stay.”

  “And where did you live before that?”

  “All over Europe. My mother is German, my father Czech. He’s a diplomat, so we were stationed in various places. We were visiting Grenoble for the holiday season when Olga and I decided to try the skiing in the Eastern U.S. But you must tell me about your little town of Pine Summit. Maggie tells me she grew up there.”

  “Yes, we all did. It’s a very small place. Nice and quiet, if you know what I mean. One of those places where you can leave your doors unlocked at night. Not that I do, living alone, and Andrea doesn’t either, but there’s virtually no crime.”

  “It sounds idyllic.”

  “It is. The first settler there built a house on top of the hill and named it Pine Summit. Gradually, other houses were built and the town spread down to the river. Lots of pine trees there, as the name implies. We don’t have a theater or much opportunity for shopping. We have to go to our county seat of Martindale for that.” I was rattling on and on again, forgetting that we were sitting here in cold that was well below freezing.

  Stefan pulled something from his pocket which I thought at first was a cell phone, but then decided it must be a walkie-talkie. “Franklin—what’s happening?”

  I could hear static, but there was no response. I was beginning to get a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, and it wasn’t from the chill that was creeping into my bones. “He doesn’t answer?”

  “Franklin—are you there? Talk to me.” Nothing.

  “Do you suppose something broke down? I thought I heard a faint noise before we stopped.”

  Stefan was trying to look nonchalant, but I suspected that underneath that façade he was getting worried. “I heard that, too. I can’t imagine what it was…maybe a car backfiring somewhere in the distance.” He turned and yelled back to the others, “I can’t rouse Franklin. I have no idea what’s going on. We’ll wait a little longer.”

  “And then what?” I asked.

  “I’ll have to climb down. Franklin will be contacting the Ski Patrol if he can’t get the lift started, but since I can’t contact him, I’m wondering whether something has happened to him. Maybe he’s had a heart attack or something. Whatever has happened, we can’t stay up here all night. We’ll die of exposure. Hypothermia. With the clear sky, and this high on the mountain, it’s going to fifteen or twenty below tonight. The wind won’t help, either.”

  “You can’t climb down from here!”

  He shrugged and gave me a look that said he didn’t see that he had a choice. The thickets on either side of the cleared area for the lift were dark, but the snow reflected enough light from the stars that the pathway under the lift was visible all the way to the bottom. I could barely make out the light glowing in the lift house far below.

  We sat for another ten minutes. Stefan turned to me. “I’m going to climb down in a minute. I’ll take my skis off and drop them to the snow below us, along with my ski poles. You can throw my boots and gloves down to me after I reach the bottom of that post back there.”

  “How are you going to climb down? How do you plan to reach the post?”

  “I’ll go hand over hand on the cable to the post and slide down.”

  I didn’t know what to say, but before I could say anything, we heard Andrea making a fuss behind us. We looked back, and David was standing on their seat. He reached for the cable.

  “David, no!” Stefan shouted. “Get back in the seat. I’m going down.”

  David grabbed the cable and started inching his way downhill. My stomach was tied in knots, and I gripped the armrest as if I could somehow help him hang on. It looked in the dim light as if he had taken his boots and gloves off, and I could see his skis and poles on the snow below. He had been able to throw them crosswise of the downhill slope, so they hadn’t slid on down the mountain. Andrea was looking back, watching his progress. He stopped for a moment with his feet on Maggie’s chair; then he continued along the cable. One more chair between him and the post.

  “Jesus. If he gets hurt. I should be the one going down, but there’s no sense in both of us going.” Stefan’s voice was grave.

  I patted Stefan’s arm. “He’s going to make it just fine.” I tried to sound more optimistic than I felt.

  He reached the post, and I could see him swinging a leg out to catch it as he maneuvered his way across the crossbar at the top. He was sliding down now, slowly, stopping and going until he reached the bottom. I felt a tear trickle down my cheek, and I brushed it away wit
h my glove. This was the kid I had considered a juvenile delinquent, and he was trying to save us all.

  Andrea threw his boots and gloves, and I could barely make them out on the snow. I could see him brushing snow from his socks and putting the boots on. He straightened and put on the gloves. The procedure seemed to take forever, but he finally got the skis attached to his boots and picked up his poles.

  “Be careful, David,” I yelled, and everyone else joined in, cheering him on. He waved back at us and started gliding down the slope, and we watched him for several minutes. After a while, I wasn’t sure whether I could see him or not. He must be near the lift shack, I thought.

  My toes were numb, and wiggling them didn’t seem to help. I resolved that if I got to the bottom of the hill with nothing frozen, I’d buy two pairs of wool socks to wear with my snow boots and never travel to the Potomac Highlands again without them. We waited quietly. I hugged myself to help keep out the bitter chill that was creeping through my parka and polyester pants, helped by the wind. I’d borrowed a pair of Andrea’s thermal underpants, but they weren’t helping all that much. I covered my entire face with my scarf and then went back to hugging.

  I don’t know how long we sat there, but it seemed like hours. Then the lift started, and the reassuring rumble of the gliding cable brought more tears to my eyes. I turned and waved at Andrea and Maggie, and they waved back.

  “I asked Franklin to stop the lift when we got to the bottom so you could get off more easily,” Stefan said, “but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. If it doesn’t stop, I’ll help you off. When we get on the ground, just start walking to get out of the way of the chair. I’ll help you.”

  “My feet are so numb, I’m not sure I can walk.”

  “We’ll make it, one way or another. And if Franklin is okay, and the lift is okay, he may stop it for us.” He sounded doubtful.

  The wind was even more ferocious after we made the turn at the top and started down. It had been blowing against the back of my parka on the way up, and the hood provided a lot of protection. Now it was blowing directly into my face. Even so, I brought my scarf down below my eyes, and I could see lights twinkling throughout the valley below, and as Maggie had said, the mountains were silhouetted beautifully against the star-filled sky. I was positive I’d never ride on a lift again if I lived to be a hundred, so I wanted to make the most of the experience in spite of the cold.

  Then I noticed flashing lights on the highway far away. Were police cars, or an ambulance, on their way to the ski area? Maybe Franklin had had a heart attack and David had called for help. “I wonder what’s happening,” I ventured, but Stefan only shook his head.

  As we neared the bottom, Stefan raised the bar that had been across our laps. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to stop. Remember, just keep walking.”

  I hated to remind him that I wasn’t at all sure I could walk. Maybe if I fell down flat, the chair would miss me and he could drag me out of the way. He grabbed my right arm with his right hand and put his left arm around me with his left hand under my arm. He lifted me, and somehow, even though he had skis on, managed to maneuver me out of the way of the chair. Then he turned, obviously to help Andrea if she had trouble getting off in the faint light of the unloading area. She came off the chair and got out of the way, and Maggie did the same.

  “Maggie, take your aunts over to the lodge and see if the cleaning crew is still there. You can warm up in there if it’s unlocked. I’ll see about Franklin.” With police cars and an ambulance on the way, if my guess was right, he obviously felt that we shouldn’t see what had happened in the lift shack, at least not until he had checked it out.

  I could see through the window that David was in the shack, however, along with another man I didn’t recognize. David came out and walked toward Stefan as we headed for the Bear Paw Lodge. The door was unlocked, and some lights were on at the far end of the food court, so we went inside. We could see a woman running a vacuum sweeper in the lighted area. “I think I’ll go to the restroom and see if I can manage to run some hot water in the sink and put my feet in it,” I said.

  Maggie shook her head. “Don’t do that. The pain will be terrible if you do. Just walk around and let them warm up gradually.”

  I wondered if Maggie knew how difficult it was to walk on numb feet, but I took her advice and stumbled around the perimeter of the food court. In a few minutes Stefan and David came in, both looking grim.

  “Franklin was shot,” Stefan said. “He didn’t make it, and whoever shot him must have stopped the lift. David figured out how to get it going again, and then one of the cleaning crew from here in the lodge joined him.” He was silent for a moment, then continued. “This is unbelievable. I don’t know what else to say.”

  I felt a need to keep the conversation going, to try to make sense of what had happened. “That must have been the shot we heard from up there. Didn’t the man who was cleaning hear it, too?”

  “He thought it was a car backfiring. It’s not often you hear shots around here—it’s only during the day in hunting season. The sheriff and a couple of EMT’s are over there now.”

  Andrea headed for the door. “I need to talk to the sheriff.”

  My thoughts returned to my half-frozen feet, so I didn’t wonder what she was planning to talk about. The feeling was beginning to come back, along with a gradually increasing ache. If putting them in hot water would have caused them to hurt worse than this, I was glad I hadn’t done it. I began to wonder why anyone would have wanted to kill Franklin Stuart. Maybe a jealous wife or a neighbor with a grudge. I kept walking, and as I passed by David sitting quietly in a corner, I stopped and gave him a hug. He had just found the body of a murdered man, and I didn’t know what to say to him. “Thanks for saving us. You were very brave,” was all I could come up with.

  He grinned, bravely, I thought. “All in a day’s work for a mountain man.”

  “We’ll be recruiting him for the Ski Patrol one of these days,” Stefan said. “Did you see him skiing?”

  I had to admit that I hadn’t been able to pick him out from the mass of skiers on the slopes, but he skied down the area under the lift like a pro, or at least like I imagined a pro would ski. Stefan put a hand on his shoulder. “He did well.”

  Andrea and Sheriff Sterling came in. “I want all of you to go on to the hotel and warm up. I called Ivy and asked her to have some hot soup and sandwiches ready. That way you won’t have to find something to eat on the way, and you can stay inside the hotel and be thoroughly warm and comfortable. I’ll be there in the morning to talk to all of you.”

  “Okay if I ride with Stefan?” David asked.

  “Certainly,” Andrea said. “We’ll see you at the hotel.”

  I made a mental note to ask Stefan to talk to David about his smoking as I walked to the car on feet that were feeling considerably better. I could see that he was going to have much more influence with David than Andrea and I would. The Accord started right up, as usual, but it was going to take a while before the heater put out anything. “What were you talking to the sheriff about?”

  “I told him I believe someone is trying to kill Stefan.”

  “I don’t suppose that theory would be much comfort to Franklin Stuart.” Right away I felt bad about being flippant. “Ignore that remark. Why do you think someone’s trying to kill Stefan?”

  “He and Olga were connected—brother and sister, right?”

  “Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?”

  “I don’t know at this point. But why would the person who killed Franklin stop the lift if he was the intended victim?”

  “Maybe to give them more time to get away before we came back down.”

  “Good point, sister! I hadn’t thought of that.”

  I began to feel a little warm glow. It wasn’t often that Andrea praised my detecting skills, and the glow was produced by her praise. The heater wasn’t putting out any heat yet. “If someone is trying to
kill Stefan, why would stopping the lift have helped?”

  “I’ve been trying to think of the possibilities. If we had stayed there on the lift, we probably would have died of hypothermia in that wind, at fifteen below. And if Stefan had tried to climb down and fallen, he would have been more vulnerable to attack, even if he weren’t killed by the fall. But I have a feeling someone was waiting in the woods, partway down the hill, with a high powered rifle and a night scope.”

  “I saw something move in the woods near us just after we stopped.”

  Andrea pulled into the parking area at the Alpenhof. The car had finally warmed up, and the heater was pouring warm air over us. Andrea left the engine running while she said, “I saw that too. I’m thinking someone was there, on a cell phone to the person who shot Franklin, and telling them when we were at the highest point above the ground.”

  I felt a chill in spite of the heater. “My God, do you suppose the man I talked to in the lodge this morning had anything to do with this? I told him I was going for a last ride on the lift, and he asked me if I was going alone. I told him who was going. Now I wish I’d kept my mouth shut.”

  Andrea shut off the engine. “There’s no way of telling at this point. It’s not your fault, in any case.”

  “What was the sheriff’s reaction to all this?”

  “He’s a man of few words, but he seemed to be giving the idea serious consideration.”

  I reached for the door handle. “I think we should warn Stefan.”

  “I agree. After we all have something to eat, maybe we can catch him alone. It’s not the kind of conversation David should hear.”

  Maggie pulled in beside us, and then Stefan and David, and we all got out and went into the lobby where a fire was crackling in the fireplace. David brought a chair from behind the reception desk, and there was room for all of us to sit by the fire while Ivy brought mugs of tomato soup and a stack of grilled cheese sandwiches. Canned soup never tasted so good. Asbury came through the back door and joined us, standing near the fire with a cup of soup, and we explained to Ivy and him what had happened on the lift. We were generous in our praise of David’s heroic actions, and they both seemed pleased.

  Stefan finished first, said “Excuse me,” and walked away. Instead of going upstairs, as I supposed he would, he went back through the alcove where the ice machine was located, on through the kitchen, and out the back door. I looked at Andrea, and then at Maggie.

  Maggie shrugged. “There’s a storage room out back. It’s attached to the little house back there, where David and his family live. Stefan must be getting something he needs from the storage room.”

  I wasn’t about to go back out into the cold to warn anybody about anything. Then Andrea got up, we said goodnight, and headed for our room. “Let’s get our showers,” she said. “Then we can put on our robes and see if Stefan’s in his room.”

  The hot water felt so good, I had to force myself to turn it off. I put on my flannel pajamas, my fleece-lined slippers over socks, and my quilted robe. Andrea got ready, and we headed down the dimly lit hall, past the unattended reception desk, and up the stairs. We stopped in front of Stefan’s door and Andrea rapped lightly. I remembered from the time that I rushed to get him when Olga had been stabbed that he was in No. 16.

  I stood there looking at the room numbers in the hallway as we waited. They were similar to those in the lower hallway and were of crudely carved wood, very rustic. I couldn’t help wondering whether our grandfather had carved them.

  Andrea knocked again. “Let’s try not to wake anyone else.”

  Dead silence. I could hear the ticking of the big mantle clock that sat on a shelf behind the desk downstairs. “Do you suppose he’s moved into Olga’s room?”

  “I don’t know, but I’m not sure which room was Olga’s. And I can’t think why he’d move, anyway.”

  I hesitated a moment. “You don’t suppose he’s in Maggie’s room.”

  Andrea shook her head. “We have no way of knowing where he is, since he isn’t in his room. Or maybe he’s in there, but doesn’t want to answer the door for one reason or another. Let’s go to bed. Maybe we can catch him in the morning.”

  Someone knocked on the front door of the lodge as we started down the stairs. It was a soft tapping sound, the kind that sends chills up the spine. I froze, clutching the handrail, and knew I’d never be willing to open the door with a murderer running loose. Andrea, however, marched right on down the stairs. I could hear the deadbolt turning, and she yanked the door open.

  There, in the dim light from the lobby, I saw the nondescript little man who often sat by the fireplace reading the paper. He was wearing a black trench coat and a black hat with the brim pulled low on his forehead. He strode in, mumbled something that I couldn’t understand, and went straight to his room.

  “Did he even say thanks?” I asked as we went down the hallway.

  “I’m not sure what he said.”

  “Do you remember his name?” I could count on Andrea for remembering all kinds of details.

  “Bosch. Gunter Bosch.”

  “You have to wonder what he’s been up to. It’s almost midnight.”

  Andrea didn’t answer. She shrugged her shoulders and gave me a wistful look that said she wished she knew the answer to that and a whole lot of other puzzles.

  By the time we got into bed, my feet were almost warm. “You know what we forgot?”

  Andrea yawned. “What?”

  “The paintings! The Monets!”

  “Tomorrow,” she mumbled, already half asleep. “We’ll look for them tomorrow.”

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