Rules of Deception



Jonathan Ransom knocked the ice from his goggles and stared up at the sky. If this gets any worse, he thought to himself, we’re going to be in trouble. The snow was falling harder. A snarling wind snapped ice and grit against his cheek. The craggy, familiar peaks that ringed the high alpine valley had disappeared behind an armada of threatening clouds.

He lifted one ski, then the next, leaning forward as he climbed the slope. Nylon sealskins attached to the underside of his skis gripped the snow. Touring bindings granted him a walking stride. He was a tall man, thirty-seven years old, slim at the waist and broad-shouldered. A snug woolen cap hid a thatch of prematurely graying hair. Glacier goggles shielded wine black eyes. Only a determined mouth and cheeks rough with a two-day stubble were visible. He wore his old ski patrolman’s jacket. He never climbed without it.

Below him, his wife, Emma, clad in a red parka and black pants, labored up the mountainside. Her pace was erratic. She climbed three steps, then rested. Two steps, then rested. They’d only just passed the halfway point and already she looked done in.

Jonathan turned his skis perpendicular to the hill and rammed his poles into the snow. “Stay put,” he shouted through cupped hands. He waited for an acknowledgment, but his wife hadn’t heard him over the howling wind. Head lowered, she continued her unsteady ascent.

Jonathan sidestepped his way down the slope. It was steep and narrow, bordered on one side by a sheer rock face and on the other by a plunging ravine. Far below, perched on a sweeping hillside, the village of Arosa in the eastern Swiss canton of Graubünden was intermittently visible, winking from beneath the strata of fast-moving clouds.

“Was it always this hard?” Emma asked when he reached her side.

“Last time you beat me to the top.”

“Last time was eight years ago. I’m getting old.”

“Yeah, thirty-two. A regular dinosaur. Just wait till you’re my age, then it’s really all downhill.” He dug into his daypack for a bottle of water and handed it to her. “How are you feeling?”

“Half dead,” she said, hunching over her poles. “Time to call the Sherpas.”

“Wrong country. Here they have gnomes. They’re smarter, but not half as strong.We’re on our own.”

“Sure about that?”

Jonathan nodded. “You’re just overheating. Take your cap off for a minute and drink as much as you can.”

“Yes, Doctor. Right away.” Emma removed her woolen cap and drank thirstily from the bottle.

In his mind, Jonathan had a picture of her on the same mountain eight years earlier. It was their first climb together. He, the newly minted surgeon fresh from his first posting in Africa with Doctors Without Borders; she, the willful English nurse he’d brought back as his bride. Before they started out, he’d asked her if she’d climbed much before. “A little,” she’d answered. “Nothing too serious.” In short order, she’d clobbered him to the top, showing off the skills of an expert alpinist. “That’s better,” said Emma, running a hand through her untamed auburn hair.

“You sure?”

Emma smiled, but her hazel eyes were rimmed with fatigue. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“For what?”

“For not being as fit as I should be. For slowing us down. For not coming with you these last few years.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m just glad you’re here.”

Emma lifted her face and kissed him. “Me, too.”

“Look,” he said more seriously. “It’s getting ugly out here. I’m thinking maybe we ought to turn back.”

Emma tossed the bottle to him. “No way, buster. I beat you up this hill once.Watch me do it again.”

“You willing to put money on that?”

“Something better.”

“Oh yeah?” Jonathan took a drink, thinking that it was good to hear her talking trash again. How long had it been? Six months? A year even, since the headaches had begun and Emma had taken to disappearing into dark rooms for hours at a time. He wasn’t sure of the date. Only that it was before Paris, and Paris had been back in July.

Pulling back his sleeve, he ran through the functions on his Suunto wristwatch. Altitude: 9,200 feet. Temperature: 10° Celsius. Barometer: 900 millibars and falling. He stared at the numbers, not quite believing his eyes. The pressure was dropping through the floor.

“What is it?” Emma asked.

Jonathan stuffed the water bottle into his rucksack. “The storm’s going to get worse before it gets better. We need to make tracks. You sure you don’t want to go back?”

Emma shook her head. No pride this time. Just resolve.

“Alright then,” he said. “You lead. I’ll be on your tail. Give me a second to adjust my bindings.”

Kneeling, Jonathan watched as a track of snow tumbled over the tips of his skis. In seconds, the skis were covered. The tips began to quiver and he forgot all about the bindings.

Warily, he rose. Above his shoulder, the Furga Nordwand, a wall of rock and ice, shot a thousand feet to a craggy limestone summit. Prevailing winds had piled loose snow against the base of the wall, forming a high, broad embankment that appeared choked and unstable. “Loaded,” in the mountaineer’s parlance.

Jonathan’s throat went dry. He was an experienced mountaineer. He’d climbed in the Alps, the Rockies, and even for a season, the Himalayas. He’d had his share of scrapes. He’d come through when others hadn’t. He knew when to be worried.

“Do you feel it?” he asked. “It’s getting ready to rip.”

“Did you hear something?”

“No. Not yet. But . . .”

Somewhere out there . . . somewhere above them . . . the sound of distant thunder rolled across the peaks. The mountain shuddered. He thought of the snow on the Furga. Days of unremitting cold had frozen it into a mammoth slab weighing thousands of tons. It wasn’t thunder he heard, but the noise of the slab cracking and breaking free from the older, crustier snow beneath it.

Jonathan stared up at the mountain. He’d been caught in an avalanche once before. For eleven minutes he’d lain beneath the surface, entombed in darkness, unable to move a hand, even a finger, too cold to feel that his leg had been yanked out of its socket and twisted backward so his knee was inches from his ear. In the end, he’d survived because a friend had seen the cross on his patrolman’s jacket a moment before he’d been swept under.

Ten seconds passed. The rumbling died. The wind slackened and an eerie quiet reigned.Without a word, he unwound the rope coiled round his midsection and fastened an end around Emma’s waist. Retreat was no longer an option. They needed to get out of the path of the coming avalanche. Using hand signals, he motioned that they would be taking a path directly up the face and that she was to follow closely. “Okay?” he signaled.

“Okay,” came the reply.

Pointing his skis up the hill, Jonathan set out. The face rose steeply, following the flank of the mountain. He kept a demanding pace. Every few steps he glanced over his shoulder to find Emma where she should be, no more than five paces behind. The wind picked up and shifted to the east. Snow attacked in horizontal slats, clawing at the folds of their clothing. He lost all feeling in his toes. His fingers grew numb and wooden. Visibility dwindled from twenty feet to ten, and then he couldn’t see beyond the tip of his nose. Only the burn in his thighs told him that he was moving uphill and away from the ravine.

He crested the ridge an hour later. Exhausted, he anchored his skis and helped pull Emma up the final few feet. Lifting her skis over the edge, she collapsed in his arms. Her gasps came in spasmodic gulps. He held her close until she found her breath and was able to stand on her own.

Here, in the saddle of two peaks, the wind pummeled them with the fury of a jet engine.The sky, however, had partially cleared, and Jonathan was granted a fleeting view down the valley that led to the village of Frauenkirch, and beyond it, Davos.
He skied to the far side of the ridge and looked over the cornice. Twenty feet below, a chute of snow plummeted like an elevator shaft between outcroppings of rock. “This is Roman’s. If we can get down here, we’ll be okay.”

Roman’s was part of the local lore, named for a guide killed by an avalanche while skiing down it. Emma’s eyes opened wide. She looked at Jonathan and shook her head. “Too steep.”

“We’ve done harder.”

“No, Jonathan . . . look at the drop. Isn’t there another way?”

“Not today.”

“But . . .”

“Em, we get off this ridge or we freeze to death.”

She moved closer to the lip, craning her neck to get a good look at what lay below. She pushed back, her chin resting on her chest. “What the hell?” she said, not half meaning it.“We’re here. Let’s do it.”

“Just a little drop, a quick turn, and it’s all cake. Like I said, we’ve done harder.”

Emma nodded, more certainly now. And for a moment she gave the illusion that nothing was out of order, that they weren’t flirting with frostbite, and that she’d been looking forward to testing herself against this near-suicidal chute all along.
“Okay then.” Jonathan removed his skis and peeled off the skins.

Gripping one ski like an ax, he cut a three-foot-square slab of snow and dropped it over the edge. The slab struck the incline and tumbled down the mountain. Here and there, trails of snow dribbled lazily, but the slope held firm.

“Follow me down,” he said. “I’ll mark the trail.”

Emma came alongside him, the tips of her skis dangling over the cornice.

“Get back,” he said, hurrying to put on his skis. She had the look. He didn’t even need to see her to know it. He could sense it. “Let me go first.”

“Can’t let you do all the heavy lifting.”

“Don’t even think about it!”

“Last one down, remember?”

“Hey . . . no!”

Emma pushed off, hung for a moment, then dropped to the slope, skis striking the ice with a sizzle. She landed awkwardly and traversed the chute at lightning speed, her downhill ski slightly askew, pressed hard against the snow. Her hands were too high; her body too far over her skis. Her entire figure looked ungoverned, out of control.

Jonathan’s eyes shot to the rocks bordering the chute. Turn! a voice shouted inside him.
Ten feet separated her from the rocks. Five. The next instant, she executed a perfect jump turn and reversed her direction. Jonathan relaxed.

Emma raced across the chute and made another flawless turn. Her hands dropped to her side. Her knees flexed to absorb any hidden bumps. All signs of fatigue had vanished.

He raised a fist in triumph. She had done it. In thirty minutes, they would be seated in a booth at the Staffelalp restaurant in Frauenkirch, two steaming cafés Lutz in front of them, laughing about the day and pretending that they’d never been in any danger. Not really. Later, they would go to the hotel, fall into bed, and . . .

Emma fell making the third turn.

Either she caught an edge or she turned a half second too late and nicked her skis against the rocks. Jonathan’s stomach clenched. Horrified, he watched as she carved a scar down the center of the chute. Her hands clawed at the snow, but the incline was too steep. Too icy. Faster she went. And faster still. Striking a bump, her body was flung into the air like a rag doll. She landed with one leg twisted beneath her. There was an explosion of snow. Her skis shot into the air as if launched from a cannon.

She began to starfish, arms and legs akimbo, cartwheeling head over heel.

“Emma!” he cried out, launching himself down the chute. He skied with abandon, arms flung wide for balance, his body taut, attacking the hill. A veil of mist crossed the slope, and for a moment, he was lost in white, visibility nil, with no idea which way was up or down. He straightened his skis and shot through the cloud.

Emma lay far down the slope. She had come to rest on her stomach, head below her feet, face dug into the snow. He stopped ten feet away from her. Stepping clear of his skis, he took high, bowlegged strides through the powder, his eyes hunting for a flicker of movement.

“Emma,” he said firmly. “Can you hear me?”

Slinging off his daypack, he fell to his knees and cleared the snow from her mouth and nose. Placing a hand on her back, he felt her chest rise and fall. Her pulse was strong and steady. Inside his pack was a nylon mesh bag holding a spare cap, mittens, goggles, and a Capilene shirt. He folded the shirt and placed it under her cheek.

Just then, Emma stirred. “Oh, shit,” she murmured.

“Stay still,” he commanded in his emergency room voice. He ran a hand along her pants, starting at the thigh and working down. Suddenly, her face contorted in agony. “No . . . stop!” she cried.

Jonathan pulled his hands away. A few inches above the knee, something pressed sharply against the fabric of her pants. He stared at the grotesque bulge. There was only one thing that looked like that. “It’s broken, isn’t it?” Emma’s eyes were wide, blinking rapidly. “I can’t wiggle my toes. It feels like a bunch of loose wires down there. It hurts, Jonathan. I mean the real thing.”

“Keep calm, and let me take a look.”

Using his Swiss Army knife, he cut a slit in her ski pants and gingerly separated the fabric. Splintered bone protruded from her thermal underwear. The material around it was wet with blood. She’d suffered a compound fracture of the femur.

“How bad is it, really?” Emma asked.

“Bad enough,” he said, as if it were only a hairline fracture. He shook out five Advil and helped her take a sip of water. Then, using adhesive tape from the first aid kit, he secured the tear in her ski pants. “We need to get you on your back and facing downhill. Okay?”

Emma nodded.

“First, I’m going to splint your leg. I don’t want that bone moving anywhere. For now, just stay still.”

“Christ, Jonathan, does it look like I’m going to walk anywhere?”

Jonathan walked up the slope to retrieve her skis and ski poles. Placing one pole on either side of the leg, he cut a length of climbing rope, tied off one end, and wrapped it round and round the thigh and calf. Kneeling by her side, he handed her his leather wallet. “Here.”

Emma clamped it between her teeth.

Jonathan slowly tightened the rope until the poles embraced the broken limb. Emma sucked in a breath. He tied off the other end of the rope, then turned her on her back and rotated her body so her head lay above her feet. After that, he spent a minute fashioning a hill behind her back so she could sit up. “Better?” he asked.

Emma grimaced as a tear sped down her cheek.

He touched her shoulder. “Alright, let’s get some help up here.” He took the two-way radio from his jacket. “Davos Rescue,” he said, turning out of the wind. “I need to report an emergency. Skier injured on the south side of the Furga at the base of Roman’s. Over.”

Silence greeted his call.

“Davos Rescue,” he repeated. “I have an emergency requiring immediate assistance. Come back.”

A blizzard of white noise answered. He tried again. Again, there was no response.

“It’s the weather,” said Emma. “Go to another channel.”

Jonathan flipped to the next channel. Years ago, he’d worked as an instructor and ski patrolman in the Alps, and he’d programmed the radio with the frequencies of every emergency rescue service in the area–Davos, Arosa, and Lenzerheide–as well as the Kantonspolizei, the Swiss Alpine Club, and Rega, the helicopter rescue outfit known to skiers and climbers as the meat wagon.

“Arosa Rescue. Skier injured on the south side of the Furga. Immediate assistance required.”

Again, there was no response. He brought the radio closer. The power light flickered weakly. He banged the radio against his leg. The light blinked and went dark. “It’s dead.”

“Dead? The radio? How’s that? I saw you try it last night.”

“It was fine then.” Jonathan clicked the instrument on and off several times, but it refused to come to life.

“Is it the batteries?”

“I don’t see how. I put in a fresh set yesterday.” Removing his mittens, he examined the inside of the set. “Not the batteries,” he said. “The wiring. The power unit’s not attached to the transmitter.”

“Attach it.”

“I can’t. Not here. I’m not sure I could even if I had the tools.” He tossed the two-way radio into his bag.

“What about the phone?” Emma asked.

“What about it? It’s a big-time dead zone up here.”

“Try it,” she commanded.

The signal icon on Jonathan’s cell phone showed a parabolic antenna cut through with a solid line. He dialed the number for Rega anyway. The call failed. “Nothing. It’s a black hole.”

Emma stared at him a moment and he could see that she was working hard to keep it together. “But we’ve got to talk to someone.”

“There’s no one to talk to.”

“Try the radio again.”

“What for? I told you, it’s broken.”

“Just do it!”

Jonathan kneeled beside her. “Look, everything’s going to be okay,” he said in as calm a voice as he could muster. “I’m going to ski down and bring back help. As long as you have your avalanche transmitter, I won’t have any problem finding you.”

“You can’t leave me here.You’ll never find your way back, even with the beacon. You can’t see twenty feet in any direction. I’ll freeze. We can’t . . . I can’t . . .” Her words trailed off. She dropped her head onto the snow and turned her face so he wouldn’t see that she was crying. “I almost had it, you know . . . that last turn . . . I just was a little late . . .”

“Listen to me. You’re going to be fine.”

Emma looked up at him. “Am I?”

Jonathan brushed the tears from her cheek. “I promise,” he said.

Reaching into his rucksack, he found a thermos and poured his wife a cup of hot tea. While she drank, he gathered her skis and placed them in the snow behind her, forming an X so he could spot them from a distance. He removed his patrolman’s parka and laid it over her chest. He took off his cap and placed it over Emma’s, pulling it down so that it covered her neck. Finally, he fished the space blanket from the rucksack and gingerly slid it beneath her back and around her chest. The word “HELP”was spelled across it in large fluorescent orange letters, meant to aid in cases of air evacuation. But there would be no helicopter flying in today.

“Pour yourself some tea every fifteen minutes,” he said, taking her hand. “Keep eating and above all, don’t fall asleep.”

Emma nodded, her hand gripping his like a vise.

“Remember the tea,” he went on. “Every fifteen–”

“Shut up and get out of here,” she said. She gave his hand a last squeeze and released it. “Leave before you scare me to death.”

“I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

Emma held his eyes. “And, Jonathan . . . don’t look so unsure of yourself. You’ve never broken a promise yet.”

Excerpted from Rules of Deception by Christopher Reich Copyright © 2008 by Christopher Reich. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.