Read an Excerpt
"Why here?" asked Ken Hayward, the chief of Troublesome Gulch Paramedics. He flipped through Brody Austin's job application and résumé, then peered at him over the top of his halfperch reading glasses. "That's the million-dollar question, son. If we were FDNY, Chicagoeven Denverit'd be a no-brainer, but" He spread his arms to indicate the mishmash decor, circa 1980, that comprised their headquarters.
Perspiration gathered beneath Brody's collar, despite every vow he'd made to keep his cool. He'd figured the topic would come up eventually.
Of course. But he still felt unprepared to address it, even after all this time, which had to say something negative about his character.
"Well " He cleared his throatthe standard stall tactic. Luckily the grizzled old medic went on, affording Brody time to concoct some sort of explanation that didn't make him seem as if he were hedging, which he was, or worsethat he'd completely lost his mind. And the jury was still out on that issue.
"Not that we won't be thrilled to welcome you." Hayward held up a hand. "Your training is extensive, and I'm even more impressed by your experience. Large agencies, Flight for Life, the U.S. Army for cripe's sake."
"How's your skiing?" Hayward asked, out of the blue.
Brody blinked, thrown by the seemingly unrelated question. "Ah a little rusty, I guess. Used to be good."
Hayward indicated the mountain range looming outside his office window. "We work with Alpine Search and Rescue as part of our duties. They're always abysmally short on trained volunteers. So you'll pull some tours as ski patrol. But don't worryit'slike riding a bike. Few weeks on the slopes, and you'll be fine."
Brody swallowed and leaned slightly forward. "Does that mean I have the job?"
Hayward's chair creaked as he tipped back and braced his hands behind his head. "Hell, I'm not going to beat around the bush. You want it, it's yours. Most of our applicants are fresh out of EMT-Basic and don't know PVC from PMS."
Brody chuckled. "We welcome someone with your experience. I guess I'm just curious what would make a young guy like you want to move way out to the north end of Timbuk-nowhere."
A small measure of relief trickled through Brody knowing he tentatively had the job offer, but he still had to tackle the unanswerable question. Everything could change if Hayward knew the whole truth. Brody nodded. "The thing is "
What was the thing, dammit? Any idiot knows you can't start out a statement with that phrase when you have no clue about the thing. Against his will, his jaw clenched, and so did his fists. He was blowing this. And he couldn't. He had no explanation for why, but he just couldn't.
"Frankly, our salaries don't even come close to those in the city," Hayward prompted, inordinately patient.
Brody acknowledged by lifting his chin. "I'm aware of the pay scale. Money isn't why I do this job, Chief. It never has been."
"That's admirable, and I share your feelings." Hayward raised one bushy eyebrow. "But, just to play devil's advocate it's expensive living in a Colorado ski town." He gave a rueful half smile.
"Even a redheaded stepchild ski town like Troublesome Gulch. We're not Aspen or Telluride, by any means. Hell, we're not even Keystone, but the going's still rougher than you'd imagine. You independently wealthy?"
"Not that. I wish. My needs are simple." He didn't bother mentioning the blood money settlement he'd received from the state all those years ago, or the fact that he hadn't been able to touch a dime of it. Consequently, it had grown over the past ten years, and the interest alone provided a cushion of security that allowed him to work for a smaller salary than he might otherwise have to.
Hayward chuckled and glanced toward a framed photograph on the corner of his desk. "Simple needs definitely means you don't have a wife or kids at home."
It wasn't a question, but Brody answered anyway. "Not sure I'm the marrying type, if you ask my former girlfriend's opinion," he said, wryly. "But, no. It's just me. My folks live in New Mexico. Brother's in Iraq."
"God speed to him."
"Which brings us backagainto my original question." Hayward flipped his hand casually.
"Why Troublesome Gulch Paramedics?"
It took some effort for Brody to appear nonchalant. Somehow Hayward had pinpointed the sore spot on Brody's soul, and he just kept jabbing it. Brody wanted to answer the man's question. He really did. Problem was, he didn't think he could make anyone understand what drew him back to Troublesome Gulch, after a decade trying to erase the godforsaken place from his memory altogether. Hell, he barely understood it himself.
All he knew for sure was that something in his life needed to change, and if his ex-girlfriend, Kelly, knew what she'd been talking about the day she'd unceremoniously kicked his ass to the curb, all Brody's "issues" started and ended in this place.
But he couldn't say any of that.
Not during a job interview.
And, frankly, he wasn't sure what it meant anyway.
He went for a bland explanation that would hopefully pass. It even held a bit of truth. But it wasn't the whole truth, nor was it anywhere close to the bottom-line reason he'd come back. "I think," he started slowly, "all towns, no matter how big, small or remote, should have great emergency medical care." He hiked up one shoulder. "I know it's difficult to draw qualified medics out to these smaller departments. And you're right. A lot of guys couldn't afford to live in the high country on the salary you offerno offense intended. I can manage, so here I am."
Hayward steepled his hands in front of him on the desk blotter. He inclined his head and smiled. "A guy willing to take a hit in the wallet so the residents of Troublesome Gulch will be safer.You don't come across that kind of dedication very often."
The implication of some superhero devotion or personal sacrifice made Brody's skin hot and itchy. His decision had a helluva lot more to do with atonement than altruism. "I don't mean to imply I can single-handedly"
"No, no." Hayward brushed the notion away. "I didn't misunderstand you, and I appreciate it. Before you accept the position, though, I want you to be absolutely aware of what you're getting into, because we need commitment. We have enough turnover as it is, Brody. We can't take another personnel hit if you decide three months down the road that the town is too restrictive for your tastes."
"My own personal work ethics wouldn't allow me to do that. But fill me in on the cons, anyway."
"Winters can be hell. Tourists. Or 'tourons," as some of the locals call them, which is a hybrid of tourist and moron. Ski traffic. Not to mention the cold."
"I served a tour of duty in Afghanistan before leaving the army. Trust me, you haven't faced a cold winter until you've weathered one in those godforsaken mountains."
"I'd heard that," Hayward said. "I bet you have some stories."
"That I do."
"Weather aside, housing prices are ridiculously inflated. Whether you can manage them or not, it rankles to pay several hundred thousand dollars for a prefab shack."
"I can deal with that."
"And your social life will suffer, too."
Brody lifted one ankle and rested it on the opposite knee. "How so?"
"Well," Hayward drawled, "you must know we're not exactly a bustling metropolis, especially in the off-season. As old Betty at the phone company loves to say, 'If you didn't bring her with you, you sure as hell ain't findin' her here."
Brody smiled. Luckily, he wasn't in the market for yet another relationship to overload with his baggage until it broke beneath the weight, so old Betty had nothing to worry about on his behalf. "Frankly, my last relationship was a disaster to the power of ten. I'm looking forward to some time alone here."
"Man can't live on work alone. The nights get chilly."
"I'll deal," Brody said, fully planning to give the alone thing a fair shot. If it got too cold, he'd buy a big old dog who could curl up on his feet. But he didn't want to talk about his private life anymore. He wanted to sign on the dotted line and get on with it whatever it was. "I just" he blew out a breath
"I'm not generally this inarticulate, but I don't know that I can adequately explain why I'm here."
"Give 'er a shot."
Brody just couldn't understand why Hayward was making this so difficult on him. "I'm a good medic, and I love what I do. Yes, I've worked in big cities. I've worked with the military. I've taken advantage of a lot of great opportunities." He paused, pressing his lips together as he gathered his thoughts. "But I'm twenty-nine years old, Chief, and I feel rootless."
Hayward nodded. "I want to work someplace where I can make a difference, where I can build some kind of life. I have no idea why, but it feels like I might be able to do that here. So I'll answer your question with a question. You ask, why Troublesome Gulch? I ask, why not?"
Silence ensued. "That's it?"
Brody hesitated, thinking that wasn't it at all, but he settled for a terse nod.
Another silence yawned. The older man's piercing gaze never left his face, and, not knowing what else to do, Brody held the stare. He couldn't stand much more of this.