Thursday, September 24, 2015

Everest - Chapter 20


I can’t leave Tom.

The anxiety that arose even at the thought was near to choking me and that in itself made me stop and reflect just how off balance I was. In fact when I thought about it, it was alarming how much. Flynn, still propping up the doorpost, nodded at the hallway.

“I just left Paul. He’s got his door open and an ear out.”

Rationally, Tom wasn’t going to wake. Flynn was right. It was way past time to stop and get it together. I followed him up to the tiny office at the top of the stairs just outside Paul’s office, where we could shut the door and put the light on. It was warm up there, I saw Flynn frown and cross the room and put a hand on the wall heater and then turn it down, but it was stark as it had always been, not a lot more than the computer, fax machine, desk and I saw now as well as the chair behind the desk another wooden frame armchair had been added on the other side of it. Probably to remind Dale if he was working up here that he might at any moment have company.

Flynn took the chair behind the desk and poured two generous glasses of slightly amber fluid from the uncorked bottle, pushing one over to me. I recognised the scent of it.

“David’s bootleg stuff?”

“This is from the new haul Dale and Riley found, to do with the train Dale’s been researching.” Flynn leaned back in his chair, propping one knee against the side of the desk as I took the armchair across from him. “Remind me to tell you that story when you’ve got an hour.”

“Tom made some enquiries for him.” It had taken his mind off immediate stresses at the time; I’d been grateful to Dale for distracting him. I took a sip of the moonshine which burned the sinuses but in a surprisingly good way. Some kind of fruit lingered at the back of this; it had always tasted to me like a hybrid between sloe gin in a particularly sweet year, and some kind of fruit schnapps. Tom would like this.

“How is he?” Flynn asked quietly. He was lounging with his glass between his hands but his eyes were very steady. 

“In a lot of pain.” I took another harder swallow of moonshine. “Emmett’s put a drip up to try and manage it more evenly.”

“How’s your pain?”

“It’s only a break, it’s fixed.” I took another gulp and Flynn leaned forward to refill my glass.

“You had surgery a few days ago; even you need rest. And if you were able to sleep you’d be sleeping when he does, so are you going to tell me about it?”

He’d see that. Of course he’d see that.

“I did this to him.” I said to the desk. Flynn looked at me over his glass and his braced knee.

“I did this.” I said again, and it came out easier the second time, particularly with another swallow of David’s white lightning. “This was my fault. I screwed up, Flynn. Worse than I ever screwed up in my life.”


Oh where to start. I tipped my head back, looking at the plaster board ceiling. This is the one artificial room in the ranch, the single one that is anonymous, devoid of personality and might be anywhere, in any building. I always thought it reflected the general view of the family towards it; a kind of functional necessity and nothing more.

“Bad decision after bad decision. I should have thrown Phoenix out the first time he put a foot wrong. Tom knew. His instincts were right about Phoenix from the start. Phoenix is young. Oh, he’s twenty three, I don’t mean like that, but emotionally…. maybe somewhere in his teens? He’s – well. Bi, I suspect. Or undecided, confused, he’s certainly not exactly straight. Not bright, making a whole lot of stupid decisions with not much idea of what he’s doing or what the consequences are likely to be, vulnerable in all the wrong ways…. It hit all the buttons. I gave him chance after chance until he managed to get us in the mess Tom predicted.”

“You’re one of Philip’s boys.” Flynn said softly and succinctly.

It was acute. I glanced up at him and he was looking at me with his dark eyes steady. “You know I’d probably have done the same? We probably all would.”
“No.” I said with conviction, because I knew Flynn and I’d seen him for years. With Riley, with other family brats, most recently with Dale, and I knew how Flynn worked. “You wouldn’t when you’ve got your brat with you in one of the most dangerous situations on the planet.” Flynn shook his head slowly.

“Was it that simple? I know you too.”

I took another, long swallow of the hooch. I needed it to get this out. “When we got to base camp, one of our team – Bill’s brother – had set up a scam. Dead loss clients that no other expedition would touch for basic safety reasons, people with a lot of money but no sense or experience. There were no guides in the expedition other than the brother and partner, no support, hardly any kit, nothing. They planned on running unfit clients through the ice fall and letting them fail, realise they weren’t up to the climb and head home within a few days, leaving a very low cost expedition with a whole lot of dollars. But the partner had a fall just before we arrived, so when we walked in Harry had the whole expedition on his shoulders.”

“This was when you bought him out?”

“Tom and I talked about the options. But to be there in base camp with those clients in that awful situation there, knowing we knew the risks to those people and they had no idea–“ I shook my head, knowing it as much as I’d known it on the day. “It would have driven Tom mad. He couldn’t have done it. Neither could I, but Tom wouldn’t have handled it. So we had to find a way to make it work that we could live with, or we were going to have to leave. So we bought the expedition out, we set it up properly and as soon as it was up and running I handed the management of it over to Bill, and Tom and I did our own thing as much as I could manage. The stress got to him for a while but we got through. He was … I thought doing pretty good, a whole lot of stuff was starting to come up like I told you in the emails, and like you said, it’s a strong action not a sign of falling apart. I thought it was good. But Phoenix was always pushing and pushing in the background. Whatever the expedition did, there he was making waves, and it was gradually escalating, he kept failing but he wouldn’t quit on another try at climbing. And another try. Every time he failed the criteria to go any higher he’d argue it and work on getting one more chance. And I always gave it to him. Stupidly. I always talked to him and reasoned, drew the line again and let him have another try instead of getting rid.”

“Because you believe in a basically good person.” Flynn said with comprehension.

Something like that. I was ashamed of it at this moment in time. If ever there had been a time for a rock solid no and the determination to withstand and manage the fall out no matter what, without giving in …

“So this went on,” I said as lightly as I could, “And on, until even Tom got to the point of voting for Phoenix to try yet again, I think because he’d given up to the inevitability that I always would. So Phoenix came up with us on our way up to the summit attempt. We knew he wouldn’t get far. He was the most decently fit in the bunch of the clients; if you wanted someone to play tennis with he’d be ideal… but not the stamina or the climbing skills. Fitness is not enough up there. He gave up just above camp one and we escorted him back down to the camp, left him there with two of our Sherpa guides to look after him and help him back to base camp, and I thought that was it. He was safe and he was out of our hair, and he’d got to climb as far as he could, we’d done everything we could to give him a fair chance and to realise for himself he hadn’t got what it takes. So we went on up and we made our summit attempt and on the way down… on the way down, just off the summit, we found a Swiss kid. Loic. Amazing climber, world renowned, we’d heard of him. He was making a solo ascent and he’d collapsed, he’d been up there alone all night, no oxygen left and not responsive, comatose, but still alive. He was huddled in under a ledge, we hadn’t even seen him on our way up. You can’t assist someone up there but leaving someone who’s still alive – I’ve had to make awful decisions before, I was with the police- but in practical terms up there, there’s nothing you can do. We were running out of oxygen by the minute.”

“But Tom would never be able to let that go.”

“I wouldn’t be able to let that go.”

“But it was Tom you were worried about.”

I nodded slowly. Flynn nodded agreement, taking another sip of his drink.

“Riley would be the same. And Paul.”

“We were climbing with a Sherpa friend. Dorje. Most experienced on the mountain of the lot of us, he gave the guy his own oxygen mask and tank. We got him into the sun, tried giving him fluids but we were running out of oxygen and we had to move on. Dorje said he was going to stay another hour, give him a fighting chance to revive. So I gave Dorje my oxygen. He’d sacrificed his own to Loic, he was making a big sacrifice for this guy, and it was the best compromise I could think of to make. We were leaving him there but we knew he’d be safe, he’d have enough oxygen to stay that hour and still get down ok, and at least then we’d done every possible thing we could together for Loic. We hadn’t just walked away from him. Tom wasn’t happy with me climbing without oxygen but we were headed down, we were moving fast, we did ok. The others stopped at camp four for the night, Tom and I went all the way down to the camp three to be safe since the oxygen level is higher there. And we got to our tent and thought we’d done it. We were exhausted. I’ve never been that tired in my life and I was hypoxic. Probably more than I realised. We’d been there resting about an hour when the radio call came in that the weather was changing and some climber was stranded on the ropes between camp two and three, and then as the conversation went on we realised it was probably Phoenix. No one else was in the area. No one was able to go out and help, no one’s got the capacity there to launch rescue missions easily if at all.”

“But you were responsible for your client.” Flynn finished. “And a particularly vulnerable client. That was the choice.”

Not much of a choice. I swirled my glass, watching the moonshine move.

“We were exhausted. In no shape to climb further. Tom wouldn’t have stayed there alone and let me go even if I’d been willing to leave him. But I couldn’t sit there and just let the kid die.  So we got up and went down there and got him, between us got him moving down towards camp two where we met a couple of our expedition Sherpa guides on their way up to help, and that was where the rock fell and smashed my arm, just as the storm hit. The Sherpas managed to get Phoenix down. Tom turned us around and got me back up to camp three to get me under shelter, it was nearer. He short roped me up. I remember getting to the tent. I think I probably passed out there and I was out for hours.”

And that ate the hell out of me. It was an effort to say it at all.

“Tom was alone through the storm all night. The radios were down, I was out cold, he was completely on his own. He got the tent roped down. He got me warm, he got fluid into me, he was the one that kept going out into the storm to get more ice for drinking water and to re set the ropes to keep the tent up… that was how he got frost bitten. Exhausted, cold, no time to get warm because he was trying to keep me alive. Stressed out of his mind which makes frostbite far more likely – and when he got me to a hospital… Why didn’t anyone check him over? I know why. Of course I know why. I know Tom. He was avoiding people, staying in the background. Or pacing around with that come near me and die scowl. He was doing that on the plane whenever I was together enough to notice and make him stop.”

“Not everyone’s going to see through that and get the signals that he’s actually scared out of his mind and wants pushing.” Flynn said gently. “You know we’ve got one the same. Paul says the scarier Dale looks with us the more vulnerable he’s feeling, and he needs you to take over. But if you don’t know what you’re looking at – I’ve seen Dale scare the hell out people without realising he’s doing it. It’s unintentional. It’s the survival skill set, they do what makes people back off out of their comfort zone, what pushes away the threat, and they do it because it’s always worked for them.”

“If someone pushed Tom without knowing what they were doing…” I bolted more of my drink, swallowing hard on it. “He’d run. You wouldn’t get near him. Tom doesn’t lash out. He doesn’t. Hitting out at Phoenix – it was the last straw when he’d got absolutely nothing left; that was all. I wasn’t even conscious enough to be there for him through that.”

Flynn listened silently.

“Impulse.” I said eventually, bleakly. “Still just plain impulse, like shooting the hole through the study ceiling.”

“It’s a part of you. To be fair, it often works in your favour. And if you’d thought through – if you thought it through now, all angles of it, with Tom,” Flynn said softly, “Hypoxic or not, would you still give Dorje your oxygen? I can’t imagine you would have wanted anyone else to do it, you would never have allowed Tom to do it, and someone had to for you two to be able to move on. And would you really decide to leave Phoenix to die on those ropes? Would you? Because I think if you hadn’t gone down to him, Tom would have. And if you’d had to make Tom stop, stay there in camp three with you and let Phoenix take his chances on the ropes – without it being an immediate, clear-cut, life or death choice – that kind of thing can seriously damage a relationship. But you still had options, so you rolled the dice again. Both of you. And you kept on playing. You tried climbing further down. You worked out how sick Phoenix was and what you could do about it. You used up your energy reserves as a calculated risk, and you made a plan of what you could feasibly do next. It was never as straightforward as a yes or no. I think that’s part of what people like you two take with you when you take on a challenge like Everest, and why you do things few other people could do. It was how Tom got you back up to camp three after the rock hit you, wasn’t it? You both think on your feet, taking the options and chances, weighing them up, going with the best of them.”

“I should have put Tom first.” I said heavily. “Every time. Ahead of Phoenix, ahead of the Swiss climber, ahead of a whole lot of impulse and heroism. We were in a lethal situation up there, I should have made it simple every single time: what was best for Tom. I don’t understand how or where I ever lost sight of that.”

“You didn’t. It just wasn’t ever as simple as ‘Tom lives and Phoenix dies’. Was it?” Flynn topped up his glass and leaned over to re fill mine. I seemed to be getting through it fast. “That would have been easy. You had a hundred shades of grey to figure out from the moment you got to base camp. What kept Tom calm and able to live with himself and the situation without having to give up and walk away from the mountain. What compromises could you find for him. Tom’s independent capacity, his strength, his knowledge and experience as a climber and a partner you trust and know you can rely on, compared to Phoenix’s weakness, inexperience and being a responsibility to you both. Phoenix backed you two into a corner in the worst possible moment. You chose between exploring what you two could manage under the circumstances – and you might have decided at any time on the way that you’d reached the point of having to stop, take care of yourselves and leave him - or sitting tight and leaving Phoenix to the mountain. He would have died, wouldn’t he? On those ropes, in the storm, no one else would have found him and got him down in time. You have to let Phoenix carry his responsibility for putting you in that god-awful situation in the first place.”

“It’s Tom I care about.”

“It’s Tom you’re half crazy with anxiety about.” Flynn corrected me. “Mostly because you’re thinking of that night he was with you unconscious on the mountain on his own, and the hours he spent in that hospital on his own, and you can’t stand that thought or how powerless you feel that it happened. That was not your fault.”

“If I’d died in that tent at camp three,” I said tonelessly since it was the only way I could say it at all, “And there was every reason I should have, I was out of oxygen, out of any energy left, in shock, bleeding, hypothermic – Tom would have stayed there in that tent until he was gone too. And I know that.”

“No. You don’t.” Flynn said bluntly. “I know you know Tom. I know he thinks in black and white and yes, he’s got a will of iron, of course he has with the challenges you two go looking for. But you don’t know what he would have done when that became an actual reality and neither does he. You don’t know what would have happened when the storm broke and the others from your expedition found him. You don’t know what Dale or I or Paul might have been able to say to him by radio if it came to it. None of us know. And it didn’t happen. I know you’re beating yourself up about every risk you ever took with yourself that by proxy risked him too, because you’re stuck on that moment in that tent. This is guilt talking. You had reason for every single thing you did. Everything. It was the best choice in the moment that you could make for both of you, and you’re doubting it because of guilt.” Flynn put his glass down and sat up, leaning on the table to look at me. “You're drowning in it. And it's no good for you and no good for Tom, this isn’t what he needs. If it was Tom feeling this way, you'd do something to shift him out of it. Spank him. Refocus him. Move him beyond it, because you’d know that’s what he needed to do. It’s one of the reasons for discipline we all use and we all know; we don’t get trapped in it, we don’t bury it or ignore it, we deal with it, we let it go and we move on because it’s done. We can’t change it. Now is what matters. You have Tom to think of. He’s vulnerable now. He needs you now, all of you, like he’s never needed you before and you have not got the time or the luxury to get stuck. You’re the one that knows how to self motivate. You’re the one who can, and sometimes it’s a bastard to do. But he needs you right now to be who you are for him and hold the world together, and like you tell him, you will get through this. You have to believe it. Because if you doubt it, he will see it and he will doubt too. So get your bloody act together.”

He was the only person who could have said that and meant it, and yet still said it with gentleness. It was more or less too the gist of what we both knew Philip would have said, minus the swearing. You have a responsibility here. But this was what motivated him and me. And Philip. There were things we could find in ourselves and do for the people we loved that we wouldn’t do for ourselves. And he was right. It was that night in the tent that was stalking me the most. In all ways that mattered, I had left him. To face that night alone. To be alone in that hospital, injured and half out of his mind with stress and shock and exhaustion. Me.

And there it was. Yes. Me. I was making this all about me and what I felt and what I was upset about; that was not helping Tom in the slightest; my focus was in the wrong place entirely. And now I could see it I recoiled from it. Flynn was right. This was not a self indulgence I had time for.

I drained the glass, put it down and sat up, and Flynn gave me a short nod.

“Good. Now show me this Loudon kid’s blog. Who is he?”

It wasn’t hard to find the blog; Google had it as a top hit. The smiling blond face was all too familiar. It took me a second to process the picture of him with the banner headline, and then a wave of familiar exasperated frustration ripped through me.

“What? That picture’s faked! Good God, he’s photo shopped it or something, and he’s claiming he summited-?”

“I hear a lot of biography is mostly fictional.” Flynn skimmed through a few posts, I was reading over his shoulder and choked as I found a few details.

He gave his oxygen to Loic? And he summited alone with everyone in base camp cheering? And he moved the guy who died at camp four? He was listening in to us over his radio, everything he heard he’s used!”

It was so childish it was breath taking. Laughable, if not slightly pathetic. Tom would be outraged about this. And then I skimmed down the next post and sat up sharply, so angry my throat closed.

We’re both in high places tonight and preparing ourselves to be worthy.

Flynn was watching me, waiting for an explanation and I let my breath go in a long, slow hiss. I’d never been this angry in my life.

“That was Tom’s letter to Dale.”

And it had been a deeply personal, trusting, open hearted gesture, a vulnerable piece of his heart and soul. Which had been heedlessly appropriated for a blog, just grabbed as some pretty piece of prose and used to gain attention, flashed to the world. If I’d known Phoenix was doing this… if I’d had the slightest clue… “

Tom never knows about this part.” I said flatly. “And I would try if you can to avoid Dale finding out about it, I would hate for either of them to ever know they were used in this way. I had no idea. If I had…”

If I had, I would not have been responsible for what I might have done, but Madeleine Loudon would be suing me on her son’s behalf for far more detailed personal assault. Flynn nodded comprehension.

“We’re safe with Dale, he and Ri don’t use the computer without permission. I’ll lock this room tonight and make sure we keep it a bit more strictly supervised.”

He was skimming down through the posts and paused, looking at a set of pictures. All of Phoenix. In his tent. Outside the mess tent. In the toilet ice cubicle. All of them must have been taken by him using his cell phone. Self portraits, all of that same cheerfully smiling face. Always alone. It gave the impression no one else had been in that camp but him, although he referred often enough to us.

Was sad to say goodbye to everyone at base camp and head out… there were a few tears and lots of hugs all around.

Total balls. He’d been stuffed on a helicopter and run out of camp in utter disgrace, by Beau since no one else was on speaking terms with him. The entire camp had been furious with him. Was this wishful thinking? Re writing reality? Did he actually just not care in the context of the blog about anything but presenting the picture he intended to?

I really wasn’t sure I credited him with that kind of intellectual capacity.

I grooved on down the Hillary step…

If he’d been listening to any of us on the radio as we spoke down to base camp – really listening – he had to have taken in more than that. He had to have gotten the idea that every step up there was hard won, fought for. He had to have heard what we were feeling and the agony it was to walk on and leave Loic with Dorje when at the time we thought Dorje would be able to do no more than be there with him when he died. Had to have heard Spitz’s tears. The flippancy was shocking.

“What do you think of the kid?” I asked Flynn. Flynn shrugged, eyes on the screen as he read another few lines.

“I’d like to meet the puppet master.”


“There’s nobody there. Look at him. The haircut, the look at me clothes and the look at me name… even the writing style. It’s a processed identity.”

I looked at him blankly. Flynn leaned on the desk to consider for a moment, still reading.

“I mean that when we take a client in here, we give them generic clothes and we put their own clothes away for this exact reason. No hair gels, no blow driers. No jewellery. No created front or image to hide behind, we want to know who they are. Not who they dress up as. Someone’s manufactured this guy.”

“… Some of the others on the team told us his mother was a minor celebrity, not really known, and this was her publicist working on exposure for her and Phoenix together. He climbed Everest, she wrote her articles about it.”

“Then I suppose it might be the publicist creating the image he wants to sell. Might be Phoenix himself. I’d like to know a lot more about the mother and their relationship. But someone’s manufactured him. I can see why you refer to him as a kid, other than that he’s aping the whole boy band stock image and hanging on to teenager-hood with both hands. Kidult. The Walter Mitty stuff in the blog, whatever he sees around him he just appropriates and uses as his. No boundaries.”

“He doesn’t really recognise any kind of boundaries. I know the type.”

Beau had said as much; she and I had both spent years hanging out at the Great American Boarding School and avoided that particular ilk of students; we’d both hated them.

“I went to school with plenty of them. Rich, spoiled, over parented, over attended to. If they ever ran into any consequences for anything parents were on the phone or at the school straight away to raise hell that anyone would criticise their kid who was too delicate for that, had to be kept happy, never did anything they didn’t want to, permanently bored… they bored me stupid. But he didn’t follow the kind of – pattern – I expected. He tried a bit of emotional blackmail once or twice. Pouting. Bursting into tears at me. But I ignored it and he quit. Not serious looking for the upper hand past what he immediately wanted, no real ambition to win, he doesn’t do power play. I don’t think he knows how. He’s just surprised that you aren’t doing what he expects. He’s actually fairly easy to stop and turn around. Compare him to Gerry when you’ve got to wrench the wheel around on what he’s doing, Tom, Bear, Riley… Phoenix is a breeze. It’s all nuisance low level stuff. Kids stuff. I kept expecting escalation but it never really happened. He does pretty good charming and manipulation of people to get them to do what he wants, like he did with the women from the Canada expedition, but he’s not clever enough to keep it up for long or make it complicated past getting his goal, he doesn’t even get as far as predicting what they’ll think or do when they realise they’ve been fooled. When you stomp on it, you get a bit of a pout and sulk and then he forgets all about it and carries on as normal and expects you to do the same. Doesn’t seem to realise why everyone’s still angry a few hours later.”

“Which suggests it’s not really his script.” Flynn sat back, considering. “I can see why you were sympathetic towards him.”

“What do you mean it’s not his script?”

“It sounds like maybe learned rather than intentional behaviour and he doesn’t really get how it works so he isn’t good at it.” Flynn said briefly. “It takes someone emotionally overinvolved – or dominant or not willing to relinquish power to grow this in a kid.”

“The mother?”

“Possibly. Her name seems to be everywhere on his blog links, although he doesn’t mention her much as a person or a presence.” Flynn followed one of the many links and raised his eyebrows at the woman with fair hair and violet eyes that appeared in the picture at the top of the page. “Yeah. This is one of her social media pages. Skim that.”

I took the mouse from him and skimmed. And found myself seeing something immediately that became more and more apparent the more I read.

 “… This is all about her. Well, the entries are about him but…”

“It’s not what he’s doing or what they’re talking about together, it’s about how she feels about it.” Flynn finished for me. “What she’s doing, what she’s thinking, how it affects her. She’s working hard on presenting this maternal role and all the loyalty and suffering and sacrifice she wants to talk about on her part – the mom of the adventurer - but he’s mentioned only in how she relates to him. His actions are only mentioned in how they affect her. These two are very tangled up together. Did he have a phone in the camp?”

“Yes. And a laptop. Internet connection. He was blogging daily.”

“So possibly talking with her daily, possibly even more? So what you would have been saying may have been changed by whatever she was saying or steering him towards that day. You say he shouldn’t really have been on Everest. Was it an ambition or dream of his?”

“I’m not sure ‘dream’ was the message I ever got from him.” I said, considering it. “He came with all the flashy kit and the demands but there wasn’t really – ambition. Drive. Not much interest in the place itself or the people. Or even any idea of what he was going to do; the other clients had read books, trained….he set off to camp three without taking oxygen, fluids, anything with him, he’d got no real idea even after weeks of being up there with us.”

“So his motivation was whatever happened as a result of the blog or his mother’s publicity. There wasn’t a direct motivation for him on the mountain – so he fakes the blog entries and borrows information and fakes the photographs, like a kid cheating on his homework. He may have been encouraged to, or even helped to.” Flynn thought for a moment, considering the pictures again. “It’s clear she’s getting a whole lot of attention through what he’s doing. Lots of admiration, lots of talking about her being a wonderful mother, all the stress on her, how she’s supporting him…. from this site it’s clear she’s not hesitant about the chat shows and interviews and photographs. I could be really cynical and say I wonder if Everest was his idea at all or if he was sent.”

“He didn’t seem to mind, he was quite happy to be there.” I said, reflecting on it. “And it’s not a comfortable place to hang around unless you want to be there. Not that he hadn’t brought a hell of a lot of home comforts but even so.” 

“I think there’s something going on in the dynamic between him and her.” Flynn began to shut the computer down. “I’d be interested to know more of what it is, but I can make a few guesses. The first of which is that I suspect you couldn’t have ‘helped’ Phoenix any more than you did.”

I looked at him, surprised he’d say that. Flynn shrugged, picking up his glass to finish the last inch left of the moonshine.

"You did what I would have done. You saw him as a vulnerable, bi or possibly gay kid. You got the behaviour, you understood it, you saw past it. You're Philip's guy as much as I am. But. We see this with clients. God knows I'm not Philip, maybe he could do it if anyone could, but we've never yet managed to find a way to work it out with a client who has someone in their life who’s invested in keeping them dysfunctional. We screen carefully in our intakes because of it. A wife, a partner, an associate - behaviour is all about meeting needs. If that person is in the habit of meeting their needs through our client they'll sabotage any change we can help our client make. They need our client to stay dysfunctional to maintain their own stability and will fight like hell for it. I suspect you weren't just dealing with Phoenix on the mountain, you were probably much of the time dealing with mom by proxy. You were talking to him, setting boundaries he’d agree to, and she’d then talk with him, restructure it in his mind and give him different orders. If I had Phoenix here like we do with clients, cut off the iPod, the computer, his adoring fans validating him on his blog every day, got him out of the My Identity clothes, no hair gel, no props, cut off all contact with mom…. maybe we'd see who he was. If he knows. But my money would be on mom not being able to stay off the ranch. And resisting him making any choices about making changes in his life. Or putting up any boundaries with her.”

“You wouldn’t take a client in that situation?”

“If the client was aware it was happening, unhappy with it and actively wanting support to break away, yes, definitely. And then it would be hard. But someone not even aware of the dynamic they’re in?” Flynn shook his head. “If we took in a client and I realised gradually that they were in this kind of dysfunctional relationship then I’d help them work on their boundaries, their self image. But I’d have to prepare them that it would probably change that relationship, it may well get ugly and it may end the relationship altogether. They’re going to need to be strong enough to withstand a whole lot of pressure and anger from the other person to go back to the way they were comfortable with. And I’d be prepared myself that the client may very probably leave the ranch and end up going right back to it. It isn’t fast or easy to come to the realisation of being a sock puppet in someone else’s drama. It’s taken Dale thirty years, and he walked away from direct contact mostly when he was seven.”

“But you thought something similar was going on with Tom.” I leaned back in my chair, the moonshine had cast a slow warmth through me and I felt my shoulders start to unknot for the first time in what felt like days. I was interested more than I was alarmed now; to work on a shared viewpoint like this was very stabilising. Flynn nodded slowly, filling his glass a little more and leaning across the table to pour the dregs into mine. Somehow we’d killed an entire bottle between us in the last hour. “I’ll tell you a story… edited and adapted from a psychologist and a book I find useful. How well do you know your fairy tales?”

“The Grimm’s stuff? Yes?” Tom and I were both avid readers of the old blood and roots stuff, those stories were old enough in themselves but summarised thinking and myths and stories that were centuries old when the Grimm brothers were writing it down.

“Ok. Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty. Rapunzel. Let’s take those three. Start with Cinderella. The adult figure has constant demands but no matter how hard they work, the kid can never do anything right, is never allowed any recognition or positive experiences, not so much the bottom of the pecking order than the pariah, but they’re not actually rejected because the family don’t want rid of them. The kid is wanted to be there being part of this game, because it’s important to the family. This kid’s given role is to run around trying to do right while constantly being in the wrong as far as the adult is concerned. The adult likes it that way.”


“Possibly, yes. The scapegoat kid. The kid’s inner self manages by trying to please, burying all the anger, internalising that yes, they’re never going to be liked or wanted for themselves, they have less rights than everyone else, they’re not entitled to resist ill treatment or abuse by others so somehow they must deserve it, they are just inherently bad. But they never quite give up hope of one day managing to do enough to be allowed to go to the ball, because it’s held over their heads constantly by that adult: if you did it right, if you pleased me enough I’d treat you well, so it’s your fault when I don’t.”

That was shockingly painfully acute, I could see a lot of that in Tom.

“Sleeping Beauty.” Flynn paused for a moment, looking past me at the switched on heater. “The wicked witch – let’s call that an adult parental figure – wants the child ‘dead’ for no real, justifiable reason that ever really comes into the story. The adult isn’t getting enough special recognition or feels threatened by the child so it just does. But the forces of good – let’s call that the child – protects and hides the inner self from the adult by putting it to sleep and then surrounding it by an impenetrable forest of thorns. That’s probably the one nearest to Dale’s experience. And then you have Rapunzel. The golden child. So prized and so needed by the adult that the kid is locked up in a tower, out of sight or reach of anyone else, the adult spends hours grooming the child to be the way they like them – the long golden hair – with no independence, no relationships with anyone but the adult. No loved so much as objectified and owned. In the story, when the child is found to have established a relationship with someone other than the adult, the adult attempts to murder them.”

“I’m starting to wonder why we ever read these stories to children.” I said bleakly. Flynn grunted.

“Most of them are like this. For Rapunzel, the kid is apparently adored, but gets taken over inside and out and gets used as an extension of the adult. The inner self is not supposed to have any life or will of its own. Think about it. All three stories: the adults are projecting themselves onto the kids like they were blank screens. For Cinderella, the adult projects onto her everything in their life that they resent and are unhappy with. For Sleeping Beauty it’s the huge threat of their existence competing unacceptably with the adult whose needs are more special, higher ranked. For Rapunzel it’s all the adult’s grandiosity: the child is a mirror, too wonderful and special for the world or anyone else but that all powerful, all providing adult. All three damage the child’s sense of self, just in different ways. They internalise the projection without realising.”

I could see that too. It was ringing a number of bells. “And you think Phoenix might have mom wanting to climb his hair?”

“It’s a possibility.”

“It puts it into focus.” In fact the more I thought about it the more it made sense. “I could believe his mother was pulling strings. It would explain some of the illogic of what was going on. And why he seemed so lost if we didn’t play to his script. He didn’t know how to play on his own without mom sitting there giving instructions.” I reflected a little further, in the comfortable silence of the office, with no one else in earshot but Flynn. “Tom was starting to think this through. About his parents, how they treated him, whether or not it was – quite how he remembered it, as all his fault.”

“Which is good.” Flynn said gently when I didn’t go on. “That questioning what he remembers is good. It’s a long process. The logical, academic understanding is easy, we get a lot of clients who’d love to do that part and leave it there. The hard bit, where the real work is and the real progress, is experiencing those feelings and developing some insight into them at the same time. Starting to recognise choices instead of being driven by the programme, willing or not. Override button. And kids get two choices when parents project their crap onto them. Comply or fight back. Tom went the fight route. That takes one hell of a lot of courage.”

Yes. I drained the last of my glass.

“He’s not short of that.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was fully apparent Flynn was going to be gone for some time, if not most of the night.

Dale dressed as quietly as possible, pausing for a moment to listen before he left his room. Flynn had taken his station for the second night on the landing at about midnight and around one am Dale had woken from a doze and stood quietly by the door to watch Flynn take a bottle and two glasses through the doorway that led to Paul’s study and known, with a deep rush of love for him, what he was doing. And a moment later he’d heard Flynn and Jake’s footfall go softly up to the study.

Which gave ample and most convenient opportunity for the more mundane things to be sorted out without Flynn having to trouble himself with those too. This was Flynn’s forte, the people right here. The other stuff was Dale’s. 

He slipped quietly down the main stairs and paused for a moment in the dark family room by the ticking clock. The pictures stood on the mantel by the fire and on the book shelves, his own face was among them and for a moment Dale looked at them, each face in each image. He was very aware of the study behind him. There was a strong feeling that should he go to that dark doorway, should he go inside – there would be someone there, and it was a good feeling. A reassuring one. He had no time to check. He let himself out into the yard, closed the kitchen door very softly behind him and pulled his jacket on there. Hammer whinnied to him from the corral, and as Dale jogged soundlessly towards him the huge cob came to the gate hopefully, shoving his head into Dale’s chest as Dale unlatched the gate. A rope head collar was always kept on the gate post for emergencies. Dale took that, slipped it over Hammer’s head and used the gate to mount him bare backed rather than unlock the stable and take the time to tack him up properly. Not that Hammer was hard to ride bare backed.

This was probably going to be the height of lunacy.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

He walked Hammer towards Mustang Hill, getting well away from the house before he let Hammer build up to the canter the big gelding was keen for, clearly excited by the attention and the freedom in the darkness.

Dale had not previously visited the location of Mason’s camp site or the watch point where Jasper, Luath and Riley were camping tonight. However from Riley’s descriptions and a detailed internal map of the ranch, he had an approximate location grid figured out to a hit or miss he thought of approximately eight hundred feet. Half way up Mustang Hill he tethered Hammer softly to a tree, left him there and walked along the dark path uphill.

They would have chosen a location in which they had a clear overlooking view of Mason’s camp while remaining unseen. That required high ground and cover. Which meant Mason more than likely was on the bank below the steepest section of the hill which dropped in a cliff down towards the river bank. That was the location Dale would have chosen with the criteria in mind, and he was half way along the ridge path when he smelled wood smoke and knew he was close.

It was approaching 1.30am.

He located the three sleeping figures on the ground from some way off, and well behind the tree line he crouched down as Jasper had taught him, feeling around until he found a couple of elderly pinecones in the brush. It was not difficult to ascertain Riley’s figure from the other two: he pitched the first pinecone lightly and with accuracy to strike the top of Riley’s head, and Riley jerked, snorted and lifted his head. Dale tossed the other one more gently, saw Riley put out a hand and catch it and look directly through the trees to him. There was a whole mix of emotions there – delight, surprise, interest as Riley realised had this been anything other than illicit Dale would have woken Jasper – and then Riley sat up and crawled very quietly towards Jasper’s bedroll, lean down to grasp his shoulder and speak quietly to him. And a moment later he got up, pulled his boots and jacket on and walked down the hill to where they would have picketed the horses to keep them from alerting Mason to their presence.

Dale got up and slipped quietly back into the woods, moving as softly as he knew how and retrieved Hammer, leading him down the dark path to the pasture below. He saw Snickers trotting out of the dark some way to his left and led Hammer to a boulder, using it as a mounting block. As they met, Riley jerked his head towards the house and spoke rather softly and sounding slightly abashed.

“… Jas says to tell you he’ll discuss this with you tomorrow. I was going to tell him I had a headache and was headed home, but I didn’t get a word out.”

Dale paused, shocked, and then came a second wave of relief and abiding affection that he didn’t intend to interfere, and that was so typical of Jasper. The calm trust in it. And it strengthened his determination even further, although another voice added a memo at the back of his mind.

If I’d have thought this through further I’d have woken and told him, not just Riley. Still good at the technical stuff and ridiculously blind about the social stuff. Next time. No time for that now.

“What are you doing?” Riley turned Snickers down the sloping pasture. “Is it bad enough in the house you need company? I thought Flynn would be gone all night listening out for Jake and Tom-”

“He is, he didn’t see me go.” Dale said briefly, nudging Hammer into a brisk trot down towards the house.

“So what are we going home for?” Riley protested. “If we’re going to hang out in the middle of the night let’s do something fun? Ghost hunt? ‘What’ hunt? Head out to Three Traders? …. You’ve got a plan, haven’t you?”

Dale leaned down from Hammer to open the gate into the yard as they reached it, and Riley followed him. He’d also been riding Snickers bare back and he took the head collar off, turning Snickers into the corral and stepping back to let Hammer follow. Dale hung the collar on the gate post, latched the gate securely enough that Snickers couldn’t chew it open, and took Riley’s arm, guiding him through the shadows of the yard towards the barn. The dogs watched them curiously from their beds under the porch, without bothering to get up as Dale unlocked the door quietly with the keys he’d abstracted from their hook on the way out, and took one of the items he’d acquired from the house safe out of his pocket, closing the barn door softly behind them. Riley sat down on the nearest ledge of closely stacked hay bales to watch him curiously.

“What’s that?”

Dale saw his wandering torch beam and put a hand out to warn him.

“Turn that off, it’ll be seen through the windows. It’s a satellite phone.”

“You’ve got a satellite phone?!”

“I’ve worked in all kinds of locations with unreliable signals and now I live in one too. Flynn knows. It’s part of the technology set I keep in the safe.”

Rarely used but kept there, maintained for work emergencies. Which this counted as, whether Flynn would agree or not.

“So what the hell are you doing with it?” Riley watched him with fascination while Dale rapidly dialed on the chunky handset, entering several series of numbers. He heard the ringing sound on the other end of the line, then Ash’s voice, a little foggy but calm.


“Ash, it’s Dale Aden. Everything’s all right, I am sorry to disturb you but I need to speak urgently to Gerry.”

There was a shocked silence on the other end of the line. Riley, beside him, looked equally shocked. Then there was a sleepy exchange of voices in the background, then the line clicked and Niall’s voice, sounding fully alert in the way of men used to being telephoned at peculiar hours of the night, said calmly,

“Judge Carey.”

“Niall, this is Dale Aden.”

Gerry’s voice cut in on the other line at the same time: “Dale. I love you, but you really have to stop these middle of the night – Niall? Is that you?”

“Hello?” another sleepy voice said and Gerry’s voice no longer sounded sleepy at all.

Darcy? What’s going on?”


Another, more irascible voice started to laugh in the background. “Yeah, ok. This is worth waking up for.”

“Good morning Wade.” Niall said very calmly. “Dale, what are you doing?”

“That’s what I want to know?” Riley agreed.

“Calling a meeting, and I strongly suggest we get on with it as fast as possible.” Dale said crisply enough to shut them all up. “Riley is here with me, Niall, Gerry, Darcy, Wade-”

“Don’t try Bear,” Gerry said hurriedly. “I think they’re away on a fishing trip anyway, but he’s in enough trouble. He’s very, very grounded after the whole Madeleine Loudon column thing and forging my name, Theo didn’t take that well at all.”

“None of them took it well.” Wade said dryly. “Trust me.”

“They’re not answering their phone.” Dale did something to the phone and a distant sound on the line shut off. “First I need to know if this constitutes enough of us present to make a proper, quorate decision?”

“Darling we never worried about all that rubbish, we just did it anyway.” Gerry advised him. “What do you need? Ashley get off, this is serious. It’s brat meeting stuff.”

“Dale, hurry up,” Riley warned. He was listening with interest, calm, and with an amused kind of focus that Dale could have hugged him for; not much shocked Riley.

“Brat meeting.” Dale distinctly heard Niall say in the background in response to a distant voice, and then the quiet click of a door closing before he said more clearly, “Go on Dale. We saw Riley’s email. Loudon’s blog and twitter feed is exploding, we’ve been texting each other all evening. Gerry and Darcy both posted that the expedition is querying whether the summit picture is a fake. Two names who say that they actually were on the expedition joined in and stated the picture has to be fake as they know Loudon never went near the summit, several other members of other international expeditions have got involved and are agreeing while calling Loudon a whole lot of names-” “ - Which Loudon’s fans are not taking well at all, it’s a blood bath on there right now.” Darcy added.

Which only confirmed the need for speed. Dale interrupted both without compunction.

“Madeleine Loudon is initiating legal action against Jake’s company. She has had papers served to him here and she is suing Tom for assault on her son.”

“Tom assaulted him?” Gerry said, sounding much cheered. “Oh good, I’m so happy one of us has. Did he do much damage?”

She is suing?” Wade demanded. “What is he? Six?”

“Jake has instructed his lawyers to lay counter claims, as Loudon endangered his and Tom’s life and was the indirect cause of both their injuries-”

“Hang on, Tom’s injured too?” Gerry demanded. “Why has no one mentioned this?”

“Frost bite.” Riley said darkly. “Tom was so shaken up by Jake’s surgery and the flight out, he didn’t realise until he was home and started to undress. Paul’s seen it, he says it’s horrible. Tom’s on a morphine drip the pain’s so bad.”

He was extremely upset about it; it was in his face and his voice and his body, and Dale had not realised until this moment how much. He filed that detail precisely away in an already carefully catalogued account as Gerry burst out, sounding equally alarmed,

“Oh my God, poor Tom! What we heard about their flight back sounded horrible enough, if that had been Ash I’d have been out of my mind!”

“You two may not be aware, but Madeleine Loudon is all over the tv and the papers, the story about Loudon’s victorious summit is spreading in the national press,” Niall said evenly, “Once the press get wind of the debate on whether it’s a pack of lies a lot more papers will get excited and pick up the story. I know Madeleine Loudon’s type well, I’ve seen her now in several tv news interviews. I suspect she will have no problem at all with negative publicity or her son being proved in the press to be a liar. She is interested in exposure of any kind, as much as possible. Notoriety creates celebrity very effectively. She is likely to make any attempts at legal action as drawn out and public as she possibly can, with maximum exposure, and newspapers may be willing to bankroll her to do so to keep the story rolling if it is popular.”

“But it’s going to be bastard to get into court,” Wade argued with decades of police career behind him. “It’s a civil case at worst and she’ll struggle to even get it that far. Multiple jurisdictions involved, the alleged assault happened in another country, actual witnesses so far online are overwhelmingly anti Loudon, it’s going to be nothing more than Tom’s word against this idiot’s.”

“However a lawyer can be paid and instructed to write and do more or less anything by a client outside of court.” Niall pointed out. “Particularly a client he or she has little control over. Once it actually reaches court things it will be immediately impeded by the practical issues such as trying to sue on her son’s behalf- I assume she’s interpreting it as damage to her personal property having heard her speak about her son - but she can throw letters and claims and statements around as much as she likes without much restriction on what they say. They don’t have to be legal or factual, just being printed on a lawyer’s headed paper gives it apparent surface validity and weight. And I’ll be amazed if she doesn’t share all of them openly with any journalist willing to present her with a platform.”

Gerry hissed, a surprisingly angry sound down the line. “She won’t, because I will personally scratch her eyes out. Argh. The media would love it, the blog has all kinds of big name followers now. The story could run for months like that while it waits to actually get into a court room -”

“By which time Jake and Tom will have been dragged through the public eye anyway and called every conceivable name.” Wade said viciously. “Yes. Trial by media. Even if the actual court part gets thrown out five minutes into a hearing and Jake wins the counter suit hands down, she’s still got what she wanted. Chat shows and magazine articles, reality tv bullshit… I don’t think she’s realised who Jake is yet or that would be all over her column, but once she does that will make it all the juicier as far as the media is concerned. She won’t give a crap what happens to Jake and Tom in the process, they’ll be collateral damage.”

“That can’t happen. Can it?” Riley looked horrified. It was precisely the expression Dale had anticipated and been utterly determined there would be no reason for. And Riley turned directly to him to ask, rather than the meeting. Trusting he would know, that he would have the right answer. He’d expected it, but to actually see it, to see that expression on Riley’s face- it cemented every thought he’d had since the legal papers arrived on the ranch, bedded it into solid granite.

Across the barn from them, seated in the dark on a high perch of stacked hay bales, another man was also watching him. A man with wild hair and penetrating eyes, elbows on his knees and the shadowy lines of an old cloth knee length coat around his elbows on his knees above his riding boots. It was no surprise at all that he should be there. Dale shook his head, cutting across the voices on the telephone directly to answer both of them.

“No. We will not be playing her game. She will play mine.”

There was an abrupt silence on the line. Slightly surprised by it, Dale glanced at Riley who nodded slow confirmation.

“… Yeah, that sounded scarier than fuck.”

This was no time for worrying about minor details.

“The company is registered here.” Dale said to him as well as the others, rapidly reeling off the conclusion he’d drawn hours ago when the tipping point on this matter had been reached and the need for action had become inevitable.  “Once the story begins to grow, the media will inevitably come here, to Jake and Tom and to the ranch. Accounting for the woman’s actions so far, every possible outcome I can plot leads to that route.”

There was another silence, and this one was shocked for a different reason. Then Niall said grimly, “Yes. I concur. And once the media discover that Jake and Tom live in a group home of gay cowboys…?”

“Gerry, don’t scream.” Darcy ordered very sharply. There was a kind of stifled gulp from Gerry’s end of the line.

“I can stop this, at source, now.” Dale said bluntly before they could waste any more time. “I can be in New York by morning and I can end this. There will be no further threats to Jake or Tom personally, no media will approach the ranch, and any legal challenges will be abandoned.”

“What the hell are you going to do?” Riley demanded. He looked somewhere between horrified and fascinated. Dale dismissed the question with a shake of his head.

“It must be done now, tonight, without wasting further time or allowing the story to grow. I want to take a plane out, I will fix this and I will be back in Wyoming by this evening. If this is acceptable to you all, and this is the appropriate way according to the traditions of this meeting.”

There was another silence, then Gerry’s sharp, “Yes, go on!” was lost in Wade’s voice.

“It’s in the very best traditions. Go. You go on son, go do it. Who are you taking?”

“No one, I’m going alone.” Dale said flatly. “This needs to be a professional hit. Fast, silent, with as few people noticing as possible.”

Fuck that.” Riley said flatly, putting his hand out to pull the phone away from Dale’s ear. “If you go I go. I’m not letting you jet off out of here alone.”

The expression on his face was one that Dale knew. There was a second of faint surprise that Riley would not only want to but be so determined, echoed a moment later by Wade’s emphatic,

“Dale, cut the crap. We’re none of us going to sit around on our asses while you do this alone, that’s not how it works. Niall, you’re the best qualified-”

“How soon can you two get a flight?” Niall interrupted.

“Now. I-” Dale glanced at Riley. “- We - will be in New York by around approximately eight to eight ten am New York time dependent on air conditions.”

Riley gave him a sharp nod of agreement.

“I’ll see what flights I can -” Niall began and Gerry cut in.

“Not needed, relax. Dale’s got a knack at pulling planes out of the sky at will, it’s a talent of his.”

Riley looked hard at Dale, who nodded, somewhat reluctantly. “…I can arrange for you to be at JFK by eight thirty. Go to Capital Region and someone will be there to meet you.”

“Where are you two now?” Niall asked.

“In the barn.” Riley said pointedly, still looking at Dale although he released the phone. “It’s the proper place to hold brat meetings.”

“And who knows you’re there? You’re talking about this with our guys well aware you’re calling, so I assumed your guys knew about it as well?” “Nope, he ditched them.”

A clamour of sounds and voices broke out on the line which Dale cut into, losing patience.

Look. We have Jake and Tom here severely injured, neither capable of looking after themselves, with the ranch still to be run and a client to be cared for. The others have their hands more than adequately full, they are already doing everything they can and there is no time for this. I do not intend that anyone will be any further distressed by this matter.”

Across the barn, David gave him a very brief, curt nod that held full agreement. There was another silence and for a second Dale was aware of the paradox of the men in their various homes across the states, participating in this private meeting, who had known David so well, who had held meetings in exactly this way with him so many times – and that was crucial tonight - who had no idea of his presence here as they spoke. Who would probably suspect Dale had a few screws loose if he mentioned it. While he, Dale, who barely knew David at all, was the one here needing to take his agreement into account. Then Niall spoke, quite gently.

“All right. You two get yourselves to JFK, I will meet you there. Dale, I won’t get in your way. But Wade’s right, this is a family matter and that means we don’t just send you out there on your own. We take responsibility too.”

“Good hunting.” Wade said gruffly, entangled with Gerry’s,

“For God’s sake you all be careful. And if you get the chance to get your hands on this witch bitchqueen….”

“He’ll tell her you said hello.” Darcy said curtly. “Go do it, Dale. Good luck.”

Dale cut the call with his thumb, got up and brushed hay off his jeans, mentally switching gear to the next operational stage. “Let’s go.”

David, up on the hay bales, was gone. There was nothing more up there now than shadows. Riley was up and moving ahead of him. “Better roll the jeep as far as we can before we start the engine-”

A man, a tall, lean and quite corporeal one, was leaning against the porch rails in the darkness, his breath steaming slightly before him, arms folded, waiting for them. Riley came to an abrupt stop with a yelp of shock and Dale crashed into his back. Jasper came quietly across the yard to meet them, jacketed as the night was crisp with a frost forming on the grass, but hatless and with his long hair loose over his shoulders as it often was at night when he was hunting.

“What was outcome of the meeting?”

Riley looked blankly at him. Dale stepped around him, phone in hand, actually not in the least surprised that Jasper should know. It was both a dependable supposition and a highly logical one.

“For me to go to New York, now, on behalf of the ranch, and stop this business with the Loudons before it gets any further. I can do it and be back by this evening, the agreement was that Riley should come with me, and Niall will meet us at JFK.”

 Jasper nodded slowly, apparently not surprised by that either. Taller than Dale, in the darkness the lines of his face were all triangles, even more pronounced than usual.

“And are you asking me or telling me?”

Interesting question. Dale paused and reflected for a moment, wanting to be sure he was quite honest in his answer.

“... With respect, both. Since I am acting on behalf of a quorate brat meeting. This matter is not going to cause harm here, I won’t allow it.”

Riley sounded like he was barely breathing. Then Jasper gave Dale a calm nod.

“I assumed the plane up on the landing strip was yours?”

“You’ve got a plane up there?” Riley demanded. Dale locked the barn and passed the keys to Jasper.

“Yes, since about six pm this evening.”

“Do you need any help?” Jasper asked him. Dale shook his head, putting an arm swiftly around Jasper’s neck to kiss his cheek with heartfelt appreciation. Jasper hugged him in return, strongly, a quick and powerful pressure of all of him that surrounded Dale for a few seconds, and Dale felt the light but quite definite contact of Jasper’s hand on his butt as Jasper. The briefest of pats but it held his attention all right, all of it, in a way unique to this house and these men. And Jasper was perfectly calm. Not reproachful, not at all concerned. They might have told him they were going to repair a fence and he’d have accepted it in this same normally purposeful way.

Riley hugged him too as they left the yard, leaving him standing watching by the gate. Dale broke into a rapid, steady jog over the grass, seeing Riley fall into step and pace him easily. As they left, he saw the other figure now over by the corral, leaning on the fence rail beside the shadowy outlines of the horses. He raised one hand to touch two fingers to his forehead and flip them out as Dale met his eyes, a salute that held the same ironic amusement Dale felt at all this, as well as grim approval.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was about a ten minute run together through empty, silent and frosty pasture up to the landing strip. The small jet standing in isolation in the dark with its lights on began its engines at the sight of them. It was only then that some part of Riley truly began to believe this was going to happen. He followed Dale up the steps, watching him nod briefly to the woman who met them at the door in a way that would have had Paul demanding he came back and tried an actual hello. The steward did not seem at all surprised and smiled at Riley although it was Dale she followed into the cabin, the door already closing up behind them.

“Good morning Mr Aden. We have a course plotted for New York, we can leave immediately. Our estimated arrival time at JFK is approximately eight am Eastern Time.”

“Thank you, I need an additional flight scheduled immediately, a plane to Capital Region to collect two passengers under the name of Judge Carey, flight plan to JFK, return flight to be determined later today. I will need to meet them at JFK no later than eight thirty am this morning.”

It was the kind of tone Riley heard him use on the phone sometimes; not at all the Dale that he lived with.

Unless he’s really, seriously mad about something and then he doesn’t do shouting, ranting, slamming doors mad. He does quiet, Clark Kent pulling off the glasses and leaping tall buildings kind of mad.

Riley followed him with affection, understanding it and tonight deeply appreciating it. The cabin was remarkably like a particularly expensive office. Leather recliners were on either side of a large, polished wood table, what looked like a drinks cabinet stood to one side and the woman was already heading at speed towards a door marked ‘air crew’. “Yes sir. I’ll make the arrangements now.”

Dale took one of the recliners, indicating to Riley to take the seat next to him, and Riley sat down with his eye brows steeply raised as the engines began to gun in earnest and the plane began to roll forward, still getting his head around the idea that they were here. They were in a jet, headed out to New York. Then he grinned and buckled his seat belt.

“Have you any idea how dead we’re going to be when Flynn hears about this?”

Dale nodded slowly, considering. “I’m estimating odds of approximately 1/98.3.”

“You’re making that up.” Riley accused. Dale raised an eyebrow as the plane lifted up off the pasture, climbing rapidly into the night sky and leaving the ranch below.

“I can give you a detailed overview?”

Riley dug an elbow in his ribs. Dale gave him a grin that held probably more humour and definitely more mischief than should properly be expected from someone chartering planes in the middle of the night, and signalled the steward, who rapidly provided him with a laptop, phone, and pile of printout from a fax on a nearby shelf. Riley watched him start up the computer and flick through the fax with growing interest, and Dale glanced up at him again.

“Sorry, I’m going to need quiet while I do this. You might want a book, or a movie or something, I can-”

“You’re starting the circus act.” Riley made himself comfortable in the leather recliner, tucking his feet up under him. “I came to help. Play with your monkeys and get them in a row.”

Dale took him at his word. It was kind of fascinating to watch. Dale disappeared into the kind of high speed, intense work mode Riley had seen him use at home on occasion, data started to fly under his fingers on laptop pages in streams that made no sense whatsoever, faxes began to arrive in reams and Riley listened in silence to the calls and rapid discussions to multiple people that were taking place, using jargon and shorthand that made it difficult to comprehend what was being discussed, even after a childhood spent hanging around these kind of meetings. He was so damn fast. And intense. Dale could type at ridiculous speed and talk calmly and quietly to a phone at the same time; he appeared to Riley’s eye to be doing at least three things at once. He had no idea what Dale was working on. But it was extremely hot, here tonight in the dark, with the United States rolling away far beneath them and that memory of the secret night meeting in the barn by conference call. A fricking conference call. But in the barn, because that was where such meetings had always been held. All so very Dale. Several of the calls he made were not in English; Riley decoded one as being German but the rest were anybody’s guess and he just listened to the sound of Dale’s voice streaming out the sounds and phrases. It was only when the woman brought them juice and pastries about an hour later that Dale paused long enough to look up and Riley leaned over to look properly at his screen now it could be done without disturbing him.

“What are you doing?”

“Cutting off Madeleine Loudon’s life support.” Dale indicated to the steward. “May I have a second laptop please.”

He might have said the word ‘please’: it was still to Riley’s ear a command and not a request. The steward immediately provided one and Dale flicked it on, found the webpage he wanted and turned it to Riley.

“Can you list every mention of Jake, Tom, the expedition and the reported sequence of events?”

It was Loudon’s blog. And yes, he was right; this needed to be done by a family member, not a stranger. Riley grabbed for a pen and pad of paper from the rack by the table and paused, finger on the mouse as he looked at the photograph they had seen yesterday morning.

“Starting with this picture on the summit?”

Without looking Dale put his hand on and raised one of a number of print outs the steward had brought him.

“Image forensics report. Loudon’s face photo-shopped onto the body of a French climber who summited four years ago.”

He had an image forensics report. God only knew what else he had in the neat spread of papers on the table. Riley nodded slowly, not saying several things that came to mind right now, or doing anything distracting like punching the air and cheering, because if he’d had at any point the slightest doubt that this was going to be a win – a straight win – that doubt was now long gone.

“Does the French climber know?”

Dale drained his orange juice and went on working. “Not yet. I hope he never will do.”

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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