Marcus Walker loved Chicago, and Chicago loved him, which is why he was in Bug Jump, California. Well, not in Bug Jump, exactly. As even the locals would admit, one was never actually wholly within Bug Jump. One sort of hovered around its tenuous periphery, much as the peripatetic mosquitoes of midsummer zoned around Cawley Lake, where Marcus had pitched his tent.
One of innumerable splashes of impossible blue that spotted the northern Sierra Nevada like shards of a scattered lapis necklace, Cawley Lake lay at the terminus of a half-hour drive up a road that had been coaxed from reluctant Sierra granite by the judicious application of hard-rock drilling, well-mannered explosives, and much road-crew cursing. The bumps and ruts of the road were hell on Walker’s Durango four-wheel drive, but that didn’t worry the commodities trader. It wasn’t his SUV; it was Hertz’s. Slamming up and down the steep grade to and from Bug Jump, the 4X4 accumulated scrapes and dings the way Marcus’s forehead collected sunburn.
All in all, he reflected with satisfaction as he heard the SUV complain through another grinding downshift, it had been another very good year for Marcus Walker. Even if he had reached the ripe old age of thirty. Unlike some of his rambunctious yet dismayed colleagues, he did not think it was All Downhill From Here. Having despite several promising opportunities resolutely put off applying for admission to the institution of marriage, he retained certain enviable options that were no longer open to most of his friends. It wasn’t, as he repeatedly and patiently explained to the curious, not all of whom were his relatives, that he did not want to get married; just that he was pickier and in less of a hurry than most. Sprung as he was from a home whose parents had split when he was a teenager, he was understandably warier than the average successful young man of committing himself to a similar mistake.
The money he made helped. He was not rich, but given his age and experience, he lived comfortably. For that he could thank hard, hard work and perspicacity. That quick killing he had made in Brazilian OJ concentrate, for example. He gritted his teeth as the SUV was outraged by a pothole, threatening his insurance rider. Among the other traders who worked out of the office, only Estrada had followed the Brazilian weather closely enough to see the possible late frost looming. When it had struck, only the two of them had been properly positioned to deliver the necessary futures at a favorable price to their customers.
Then there was cocoa. Not only had trading in cocoa futures done wonders for his bank account, it had unexpected social benefits as well. Tell a girl who asked what you did for a living that you were a commodities trader and she might shrug, make a beeline for the next bar stool, smile vacuously and change the subject, or tentatively try to find out how well it paid. The usual reaction was for their eyes to glaze over as thickly as the sugar on a Christmas fruitcake.
Telling them you were in chocolate, however, fell somewhere between saying that you had just inherited fifty million dollars and that you had a brother who was a wholesale buyer for Tiffany’s. Aside from the beguiled expressions such an admission produced, you could smell the concomitant rise in hormone production with one nostril pinched shut.
He chuckled to himself at the various images mention of his vocation engendered among members of both sexes: everything from dashing world-traveling entrepreneur to stultifyingly dull owl-eyed accountant. Nothing he could say ever changed another’s perception of his profession.
Though the wooded slopes flanking the narrow, winding road were growing dark, he was not concerned. He’d made the drive from his isolated encampment down into Bug Jump half a dozen times during the past week and felt he knew the sorry excuse for a road pretty well. Returning uphill after dark, he’d travel more slowly. It was just that, while he had enjoyed proving wrong all of his friends who had insisted he wouldn’t last more than twenty-four hours in the Sierra Nevada wilderness without running screaming for the nearest Starbucks, he had to admit that he did miss human company. While, based on what he had seen so far, it would be a stretch to so classify some of the local denizens of downtown Bug Jump, there were enough who struck him as being halfway normal for him to look forward to the occasional jaunts into the bucolic mountain village.
Thus far he’d spent five nights of his agreed-upon week in the northern California mountains camping out alone, as promised. With just two more days to go before he drove back to Sacramento to catch his return flight home, he felt he deserved a bit of a break. There was a grocery store in Bug Jump. There was a bank-cum-post office combo. There was a gas station. And so, of course, there was a bar. Bouncing and grinding down the steep slope of half-graded decomposing granite, racing the onset of night, he was not heading for the bank.
The light that appeared in the sky was bright enough to not only draw his attention away from the difficult thoroughfare, but to cause him to stop and temporarily put the big 4X4 in park. It idled at a rumble, pleased at the opportunity to rest, like a male lion contentedly digesting half a dead wildebeest.
Now what the hell is that? he found himself wondering as he rolled down the driver’s side window and stuck his head partway out. Could it be a meteorite? Living in Chicago, one didn’t see many meteorites. One didn’t see many stars, for that matter, and sometimes even the moon was a questionable indistinct splotch behind the clouds. Watching the bright object descend at a steep angle, he was fully aware he had little basis for comparison and small knowledge with which to evaluate what he was seeing.
Within the light, he thought he could make out a slightly oblong shape. That couldn’t be right. Falling meteorites were rounded, weren’t they? Or cometlike, with a fiery tail? Did they blink in and out like this one as they made their doomed plunge through the atmosphere? It seemed to him that the object was falling too slowly to be a meteorite, but what did he know about representative intra- atmospheric velocities of terminal substellar objects?
Then it was gone, vanished behind the tall trees. He sat there for a long moment, listening. For several minutes there was no sound at all. Then an owl hooted querulously. Burned up completely, whatever it was, he decided. Or hit the ground a long, long ways off. Certainly it hadn’t made a sound. Rolling up the window, he put the Durango back in drive and resumed his own less fiery descent. He was thirsty, he was hungry, and if he was real lucky, he mused, he might find someone with whom to strike up a conversation. While he did not think that likely to involve the latest forward projections for pineapple juice concentrate or frozen bacon, he was perfectly willing to talk politics, sports, or anything else. Even in Bug Jump.
Twenty minutes later, the lights of the optimistically self- categorized town appeared below him. Soon he was pulling up outside the single bar-restaurant. A mix of country music and broad-spectrum pop filtered out over the unpaved parking area; the only rap to be found here being on the food. Mother Earth had long since sucked down the original layer of gravel that had once covered the lot. In the absence of rain the uneven, washboarded surface onto which he stepped was as hard as concrete.
It was Friday night, and Bug Jump was jumpin’. Besides his rented Durango, there were more than a dozen other vehicles parked haphazardly around the lot. No cars: only SUVs, pickups, and a couple of sorely used dirt bikes.
Stepping up onto the raised cement sidewalk that flanked the town’s only street, he pushed through the outer glass door, walked through the insulated double entryway, and then pushed through the second. His senses were instantly assaulted by a mountain mélange of pumped-up music, loud conversation, raucous laughter, fried food, and pool cues brutalizing orbs of imitation ivory on a felt field of play. Their perfectly round glass eyes as dead and black as those of great white sharks, the cranial components of violently demised ungulates gazed blankly at each other from opposing walls. There was also a bear head, its petrified jaws parted in a rictus of false fury; old metal traps stained with the rust and blood of years and furry critters past; brightly illuminated animated beer advertisements that in a thousand years would no doubt be regarded by awed historians as great works of art; car license plates from other states gnawed through by rust and time; and much other well-traveled detritus.
Though the rapidly falling temperature of the air outside only whispered of approaching autumn, Bunyanesque lengths of amputated oak crackled for attention within the Stygian depths of a corner fireplace fashioned of hand-laid river rock. In a mutually destructive seppuku of air and wood, reflected flames danced off the insides of triple-paned windows that looked out on the parking lot, vehicles, big trees, and mountain slopes beyond.
No one paid him the slightest attention as he sauntered toward the bar. As a trader whose work sometimes took him overseas, he knew how to blend in with the natives. Though he would never be able to pass for a local, after five days up at the lake his flannel shirt, cheap jeans, and hiking boots were suitably soiled.
“Stoli on the rocks,” he told the jaded woman behind the bar. She looked, as he had once heard a visiting Texas trader say about another lady, as if she had been rode hard and put up wet. But his drink arrived as fast as one in any fancy drinking establishment in the Loop, and was more honest.
As he sat on his chosen stool and sipped, he contemplated the milling throng with the quiet, self-contained detachment of a visiting anthropologist. There didn’t seem to be many other vacationers. Too late in the season, perhaps, what with the local school districts now back in session and the onset of colder weather. It explained why, except for a few locals fishing for end-of-season browns and rainbows, he had much of the lake and the surrounding stolid, slate gray mountains to himself.
Halfway through the Stoli, he started grinning at nothing in particular. Partly it was due to the effects of the iced potato juice, partly to the knowledge that he was going to win the bet with his friends. To a man, and one woman, they had insisted he would be home before the weekend, his tail between his legs—if not gnawed raw by blood-sucking mosquitoes, rabid marmots, and who knew what other horrors the primordial backwoods of California could produce.
Well, they’d underestimated him. Marcus Walker was tougher than any of them suspected. Few knew of his years as an undersized linebacker at the major midwestern university where he had matriculated. Filling holes in the defensive line, he’d sacrificed his body many times. Wildlife didn’t frighten him. Isolation didn’t psych him. After a couple of days of earnest effort up at the lake, he’d even managed to catch fresh fish for dinner. Without their PDAs, laptops, and cell phones, most of his friends couldn’t catch a cold.
And on top of everything else, the woman who materialized next to him filled out her flannel shirt and faded jeans as effectively and impressively as she did the blank space between himself and the next bar stool over. She was his age or a little younger. Having already essentially won his bet with his friends, he promptly made a private bet with himself.
“Jack and water, Jill,” she told the bartender. With an effort, Walker forbore from articulating the obvious gambit. Even in backwoods downtown Bug Jump, she’d no doubt heard it before. The opening he did use, when her drink finally arrived, suggested itself as spontaneously as had its inspiration.
Sipping from his short glass while trying his best to ignore the unidentifiable fossilized stain that marred the rim opposite his lips, he opined inquiringly, “Am I the only one who saw the falling star a little while ago?”
She could have frowned, could have eyed him the way locals doubtless did eye atypical bugs in Bug Jump. Having rolled the rhetorical dice, he could not take back the throw; he could only wait to see where and how it would come to rest.
Her eyes widened slightly. “You saw it, too?”
Ah, the Man is still rolling sevens, he thought contentedly. “I’m wondering what it was. When I saw it I thought, maybe a meteor. But it seemed to be coming down awfully slow.” He swung toward her on the bar stool.
“I was thinking it was a satellite, or a big piece of one,” she replied, showing unexpected sophistication as she picked up her own drink. “If the solar panels didn’t burn off right away, they might slow the reentry.”
It was not the response he had been expecting. Not that he was disappointed. In his book, when it came to the other gender, education and looks were not necessarily mutually exclusive. He found himself wondering what she did for a living. So he asked.
She smiled responsively enough. Her eyes were the same pale cornflower blue as the shallow parts of Lake Cawley. “Janey Haskell. I work for the satellite TV people. You know: repairs, installs, sales.”
That neatly explained the education as well as her knowledge of satellites, falling and otherwise. “Marc Walker. I’m visiting—”
“No kidding,” she quipped.
“—from Chicago. I’m in chocolate.”
Her eyes lit up. It was expected. Never failed, he mused. Explaining that he was in orange juice concentrates would not have had the same effect.
Despite the fact that he had started on his drink before her, she finished her Jack and water ahead of him. Another seven, he observed happily. He bought her another. When he finished his Stoli, she bought him his next. He was definitely on a roll. They spent the next few hours chatting and laughing and swapping stories and buying each other distilled spirits. When the father of a beard who occupied the bar stool next to him tossed down the remainder of his last shot and lumbered out, she slid onto it with a sensuous squeak of denim against leather. As she did so, her leg bumped up against his. She did not move it away.
If he failed to spend the night in the tent by the lake, he knew, he would lose the bet with his friends. Probing sweet Janey’s increasingly moist eyes, he found himself wondering if it might be worth it. His friends wouldn’t know, anyway. Early enough in the morning to be convincing, he’d do as he’d done every day since his arrival: switch on his cell phone pickup and send them the usual pictures to prove that he was indeed still where he had promised to be.
Unfortunately, after rolling nothing but consecutive sevens on his pass, snake eyes finally decided to put in an appearance.
The guy’s name might even have been Snakeyes. He was short and ugly and looked a lot like something that might have scratched its way out of the dirt behind one of the local ranchettes. In contrast, the two buddies who backed him up were clean-shaven and neatly dressed. At first glance, it escaped Walker as to why such a pair of clean-cut types would even associate with the perambulating lump of soiled goods who seemed to be their leader. Maybe they owed him money, Walker thought. Not that it mattered. The sparks in Shorty Snakeyes’s eyes were not reflections of the distant blaze in the corner fireplace.
“You’re not from around here, are you, dude?”
Oh, Lord. The slightly inebriated Walker fought down a rising chuckle. Next thing, he’ll be asking me to step outside and draw.
He wasn’t afraid of the jerk, or his friends. But there were three of them. Not good odds, whether in the city or the country. He wondered if they had just singled him out for entertainment, or if one of them had a specific interest in Janey Haskell.
“The lady and I are having a conversation.” While the crowd continued to ignore the looming confrontation, the bartender did not. She was watching them closely. Not closely enough, he knew, to get a cop out here soon enough to put a halt to any real trouble. Besides which, in a violent conflict, any resident gendarme would be more than likely to side with the natives. Even worse than maybe getting beaten up, Walker knew that if he could not get back to his camp in time to make his morning video call, he would lose his bet. And with only two days left to go.
Instead of responding, Snakeyes turned to the increasingly tipsy Haskell. “Beats me, Janey, how you haven’t fallen off a roof yet and killed yourself.” He indicated one of the two bookending quasi-cowboys. “Rick, how about you drive Janey home?” The big blond nodded.
“Maybe your girlfriend doesn’t want to go home just yet.” Setting his drink aside, Walker straightened on the bar stool. As always, he was conscious of the fact that his once football-toughened physique continued to give would-be troublemakers pause. Whether that would be sufficient to deter the three intruders remained to be seen.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Snakeyes informed him tersely. “She’s my sister.”
“Even more reason to find out what she wants to do.” Walker, sturdily braced by the amount of vodka he had consumed, wasn’t about to let himself be intimidated by a brace of mountain bumpkins, even if it meant the possible sacrifice of his nearly won bet with his friends.
“What she wants to do, dude, is keep the doctor’s appointment she’s got scheduled for tomorrow.” He eyed the woman, who by now had to be helped off her bar stool by her erstwhile driver, with unconcealed distaste. “Her test is due back in the morning.”
“Doctor’s appointment? Test?” Taken aback, Walker struggled for clarification amid the haze that seemed to have settled on his brain. “She sick or something?”
“Or something.” Seeing that the visitor was not about to further challenge Haskell’s departure, Snakeyes relented a little. “Might be pregnant.”
All of the proverbial chips Walker had collected that evening evaporated like the metaphor they were. Neither of the two blonds was the woman’s husband. Snakeyes was the woman’s brother. Which suggested strongly that the probable daddy of the satellite TV installer’s possibly imminent offspring was likely not to be found in the immediate vicinity. Perhaps not even in the great state of California. Clearly, the situation thus implied was not one to make for lasting familial bliss.
Walker found himself longing for the harsh comfort and isolation of the sleeping bag lying in the tent he had set up on the south shore of Cawley Lake.
“Sorrynoharmintended,” he blurted hastily as he slid off the stool and whipped out his wallet in one motion. He ended up overtipping the impassive bartender, but there was no way he was going to wait around for his change.
Snakeyes didn’t move, but neither did he shift his stance to block Walker’s retreat. He did, however, favor the departing commodities trader with a pithy comment and a withering stare.
“Don’t bullshit me, dude. But no harm done—that’s for sure.”
Out in the chill darkness of the parking lot, the hitherto reliable 4X4 chose that evening to not start. Walker’s attention kept shifting frequently back and forth between the glassy rectangle of a door that was the entrance to the bar and the recalcitrant ignition. The entryway remained deserted. When the engine finally turned over, so did his emotions. He backed carefully out of the dirt parking area. All he needed now, he knew, was to back into some local’s precious pickup.
Moments later he was safely out on the road. Half a mile up the state highway he swung left onto the gravel track that led up to the lake. After repeated glances into the rearview mirror showed an absence of headlights behind him, he finally relaxed.
Well, it had been a charming if not charmed evening right up until the end. As he put the Durango into four-wheel drive, he realized that he’d actually been lucky. Suppose Snakeyes and the blond brothers hadn’t shown up at the bar? Suppose he’d gone home with pretty Janey to check out her installation skills and brother brusque and his buds had come a-knockin’ on her front door to remind her of her upcoming date with her favorite OB-GYN dude? Yes, it might easily have been worse.
Instead, he had extricated himself quickly and cleanly from what could have been an exceedingly unpleasant situation. By the time he reached the lake and turned east along its southern shore, he was almost whistling to himself.
As far as he knew, he’d had the whole lake to himself for at least a day. The last campers, a cheerful elderly couple up from Grass Valley, had packed up and trundled out in their aged camper on Tuesday. In contrast to his increasing unease at the lack of human company, after tonight’s confrontation he found himself looking forward to a night, and perhaps a following day, of isolation. Just him and the birds, the fish, the flowers, and an occasional grazing deer.
His tent by the lake was undisturbed, the gear stored inside untouched. That was the nice thing about insured rental equipment, he reflected as he braked the 4X4 to a halt, switched off the engine, and hopped out. You could wander off on a hike or a fishing expedition and just leave everything. This wasn’t Yosemite or Sequoia. Cawley Lake was pretty out of the way, even for the north-central Sierras. That was why he and his friends had chosen it as the site of their little bet.
The compact propane heater soon had the interior of the dome tent toasty warm while the battery-powered lantern rendered the interior bright enough for him to read from one of the paperbacks he had brought along. Not one to stint when it wasn’t necessary, Walker had rented a pop-up shelter large enough to accommodate three adequately and himself in comparative comfort. Having filled up in town on bar snacks, he decided to skip what at that point in time would have been an uncomfortably late supper. After the tension of the near fight, the rented microfiber sleeping bag beckoned enticingly.
He allowed himself an imported chocolate bar (perhaps made with chocolate liquor whose base component he himself had once bid on) and some cold water, then slipped out of his clothes and into the sleeping bag. Reaching up, he switched off the light, then the propane heater. It would get cold in the tent, but not in the bag. Come morning, he would switch the heater on again before emerging. Anyway, the cold didn’t really bother him. He was from Chicago.
The territorial night owl began hoo-hooting again, and he wondered at its species. Certainly it was more mellow than the night owls he was used to dealing with back home. Occasionally, something snapped twigs or rustled leaf litter outside the tent. The first couple of nights, the furtive noises had kept him awake. Initial worrisome thoughts of mountain lions and bears gave way to those of coyotes, then beavers, and finally, mice and ground squirrels. Nothing nibbled at his toes. He was not the natural food of the local predators, he reassured himself, and the tent not the kind of burrow they were used to invading in search of prey.
Subsiding adrenaline had kept him alert on the road. Now, as he relaxed, its effects diminished while those of the Russian lemonade grew stronger. Consciousness faded quickly, along with any lingering concerns.
From the Hardcover edition.