Aspen, Colorado – As Nick Holloway crossed the street to his car, he noticed a man on the sidewalk, eyes closed, face tipped up toward the sun.
It was a perfect day. Nick himself felt some appreciation for the pure blue sky, benign sunshine, and cool shadows, although they didn’t really touch him. That was just the way he was. His life had never had any real highs or lows. Even when the child-killer tried to pick him up on the street all those years ago, he’d kept his head, managing to break loose and bolt down the street like a running back on PCP.
Although he knew otherwise, it felt as if he had never been in any real danger. But Nick was superstitious by nature. For a long time, he’d wondered if death was biding its time, waiting to get even. The man on the sidewalk now regarded a young Aspen alongside the street. Hands in his pockets, the man smiled and seemed to drink in the summer air, staring at the dull green leaves as they rotated crazily on their stems.
The biggest dividend from the Aspen Massacre had been completely unexpected: Nick was now magically free from fear. The idea that death was out there waiting for him, waiting for one slip-up, one lapse in judgment or awareness—that was gone. Just like that.
The Reaper’d had two cracks at him and couldn’t get it done. He was pretty sure there wouldn’t be another, not for a long time. The ultimate irony? If he died in his sleep at a hundred and three.
* * *
Nick didn’t expect to see a realtor’s sign outside the Aspen house. And he really didn’t expect to see the “SOLD” panel hanging from two short chains underneath. The place still looked like something out of a magazine; the stacked stone entrance and solid pine construction, the mowed lawn, the flowers nodding in their beds.
Under the peaked roof, the massive expanse of glass was dark, reflecting only a couple of clouds in the deep blue sky. He knew nobody lived here—at least not yet. And the house looked empty. What he’d really like to do was get in and look around. Photograph it for his book. See if there were any traces of the mass murder. Of course, there wouldn’t be—not if the place was already sold. The heavy-duty cleaners would have come in and hosed the place down and replaced what needed replacing.
They’d make it sterile and generic again. As if they could wipe out the house’s psychic history. He wondered who had bought it so quickly. There were always the nuts out there who wanted to live in a murder house, people who got off on it. Like those women who wrote to Charlie Manson or the Night Stalker. The smell of cut grass took the edge off his nerves, reminding him of baseball games when he was a kid. A long time ago, when his dad was the coach and his mom had not yet gone into her strange silences. Good times. Through the trees, he could see Castle Creek, gold in the shallows, dark under the trees and undergrowth.
A couple of hundred yards downstream a fly fisherman cast his line backward and forwards like a coachwhip before settling it on the water in a bright line. Hands in his pockets, looking more casual than he felt, he walked down the driveway to the empty garage. He saw right away how the guy had stashed him there. The garage was a sub-story, cut into the hill. A flagstone walkway ran down the hill alongside. It would be easy for Mars—-if it was Mars—to roll him down the walkway and push him over the lip of the retaining wall into the garage.
There was a three-foot drop to the plastic garbage and recycle containers, which would break his fall. From there it would be a simple thing to shove him under Brienne’s black Escalade. What he didn’t understand, though, was why. Why me? He stood in the coolness, staring down at the immaculate concrete. Not one oil spot marred the garage floor. Why was I spared? Nothing came to him. Finally, Nick walked up the flagstone walkway to the deck above. It cantilevered over the rushing water. He remembered drinking beer that night—quite a lot of it—and the incredible feeling of wellbeing it generated. A warm, rosy feeling.
“Hey.” He looked around. A man climbed the steps from the creek below, the fisherman he’d seen earlier. Tan vest and waders, aviator sunglasses, fly rod, and an old-fashioned wicker creel with a trout tail sticking out. He couldn’t say for sure, but everything looked top of the line—even the trout. Suddenly, Nick felt foolish. The guy must live here. He’d been wrong that the house was still empty. He put on his best smile. Inclusive, winning, the way he greeted people on tour. Stepped forward and held out a hand, even though the man had his hands full.
As he framed his welcoming sentence, the man said: “You’re Nick Holloway.” He found himself grinning foolishly. Had the guy read his book? “You’re the survivor. I saw you on the news.” The man set his creel down. “I can’t believe it. The sole survivor.” “Guilty,” Nick said, mildly disappointed. “This your place now?” “Just closed on it a week ago yesterday, as a matter of fact. Thought I’d kick things off with a fish supper.” He pushed his baseball cap back. The cap was tan, too, like the rest of his clothing. The words Chernobyl Ant were written across the front. “Chernobyl Ant? What’s that?” “A fishing fly—a terrestrial.” The man told Nick that he tied his own flies, went on to explain what a terrestrial was, then gave him a list of the places he’d caught fish with the fly. Went into too much detail for Nick’s taste. Then he nodded toward the garage. “That’s where they found you, right? Hey, if you’ve got time, I’d like to hear your story. I’ve got Rolling Rock in the house and I can cook up this trout. Care to join me?”
Nick realized he was famished. It was the mountain air. Guy seemed a little anal-retentive, but what the hell. There were worse ways to spend an afternoon. This was his opportunity to get into the house again. If the fisherman wanted to hear the story about his brush with death if he wanted a vicarious thrill—fine with him. “A beer would be nice,” he said. They stayed out on the deck. The water rushed underneath. The sunshine at this high altitude felt benign but was probably deadly. Nick wished he had sunscreen, but put it out of his mind. The conversation turned—as it always did—to Brienne Cross. Nick was bored with Brienne Cross, but he understood the interest. She was a big star. “What was she really like?” The first thing Cyril said that really disappointed him.
“To be honest? She was boring.” “Boring?” Cyril straightened. “I would have never guessed that.” “You’re right, it doesn’t quite do her justice. Let’s see…she was also shallow, vapid, and dull. But incredibly good-looking.” Cyril stood up. “You want a margarita? I made a pitcher earlier today.” They went into the house. Cyril suggested Nick dice some tomatoes, avocado, scallions, limes, and cilantro for guacamole. The kitchen was the same as Nick remembered. Cyril said he’d bought the place lock, stock, and barrel. Nick looked into the big living area. The same furnishings he remembered, maybe a couple of them conspicuous by their absence.
He’d read that Brienne Cross was found lying on the couch. That was gone. The other furniture was sheathed in opaque plastic. It gave the place an otherworldly feel as if it was not quite there. Suddenly, a ripple of relief, profound and earth-shaking, went through him. He had escaped. The gratitude he felt was overwhelming; it sang through him like a tuning fork, reverberations running through his soul. He was alive. They were dead, the people from this room, but he was still here. Still here to walk along the Aspen Mall lined with trendy shops, still here to appreciate the aspens and the sunshine and the good food and his chance encounter with the know-it-all fly fisherman.
He wanted to photograph the big room. He liked the idea of the indifferent plastic, the understated quality to a place where four people had been murdered. Patience, he reminded himself. He started cutting stuff up for the guacamole while Cyril grilled him about the show, “Soul Mate.” So he went into it: how Brienne would sneak her boyfriend in, even though there was a rule against that. How reality shows were really scripted, which was why there was so much narrative tension and outright fights among the players. He talked about the little field trips to Nobu’s, to J-Bar, to Caribou. Picking out jewelry, clothes, dining out, clubbing, all of those kids trying to prove they were most like Brienne. That they could be her soul mate. All the hoops the young people jumped through to be Brienne’s best friend.
Nick suddenly felt a twinge of regret. He realized he’d been uncharitable. Brienne was just muddling through life like anybody else, even if the cross she had to bear was gold-plated. Conscience made him say, “She was nice enough, don’t get me wrong. But the business turned her into a shark.” “A shark?” “You stop moving, you die. If you’re a celeb in this day and age, you can’t just tread water and expect to remain viable.” Cyril looked confused. Apparently, he didn’t know everything. “Stardom today has to be maintained. If you’re not in the headlines, the public forgets about you. So you have to work harder—incredible pressure. That’s why she took drugs.” “She took drugs?” “Hell yes. Oxycontin and hydrocodone, stuff like that. If those two dickheads hadn’t broken in here and killed her, I would have bet she’d be dead in a year.” “That’s hard to believe.” “Oh, believe it.” He told Cyril these kids weren’t prepared for fame.
They were thrown into the deep end and they had to perform. It changed them. They became tough, greedy, and hard-nosed. They had only one job: to stay in the public eye any way they could. Drive over a paparazzo’s foot? Good. Have a baby? Great, especially if it broke up someone else’s marriage. Split up with your boyfriend? Make sure it’s messy. Get into a public fight with another woman? If you grabbed her hair in your fist and knocked her off her Manolo Blahniks—fabulous. If all else failed, go commando. “Why can’t people just let their children grow up and be normal?” Cyril said.
* * *
Cyril expertly brushed the fish with beaten egg whites, coated it with salt, pepper, and cornmeal, and placed it in tinfoil before carrying the platter out to the deck. He started the grill, then regarded the trout with a frown. He opened the foil, added some beer from his own bottle, and closed it back up. The shadows were longer now. Nick excused himself and went into the house.
He really did have to take a leak, but first, he took a dozen photos with his phone. Quietly, he made his way upstairs, worried about creaking floorboards. There were none. He knew Ray and Donny Lee, those knuckle-dragging white supremacists, had done their worst work up in the back bedroom. It was vicious—the pictures posted on the internet. Disgusting photos, so bad you didn’t even know what you were looking at. Whatever it was, it looked like raw, bloody beef sliced from a gnawed t-bone.
Apparently, the idea that a white kid and a black kid were sleeping together unhinged Donny and Ray. The interracial romance, which had been developed (cynically, by the producers) over a period of weeks, might have been the reason Donny and Ray targeted the house in the first place. The door to the room was closed. He turned the knob. Unlocked. Good. He was surprised to see that groundsheets covered the floor. And that wasn’t all. On the wall behind where the bed had been, Nick saw the ghosts of bloodstains. Someone had slapped on a coat of paint, but it didn’t completely cover them. Like a Rorschach test.
Weird, the guy buying the house in this condition. It sort of shocked him, but not so much he forgot to take pictures. The door behind him creaked open. Nick felt as if someone had taken a fine-toothed comb and run it along with the hairs of his neck. He’d been caught. His mind raced. He was snooping because, well, it was natural, wasn’t it? He’d almost been killed here himself. Nick thought of the way to frame it, opened his mouth to speak. But Cyril beat him to the punch. His words were simple yet puzzling, and after he said them the temperature inside the cabin dropped twenty degrees. The moment hung in the air, like the end of a concert when the last note has been played, a suspension of sound before the clapping begins. What Cyril said was, “When you see them, tell them I said ‘hello.’”