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Mark T. Sullivan (b. 1958) is an author of thrillers. Born in a Boston suburb, he joined the Peace Corp after college, traveling to West Africa to live with a tribe of Saharan nomads. Upon returning to the United States, he took a job at Reuters, beginning a decade-long career in journalism that would eventually lead to a job as an investigative reporter for the San Diego Tribune. Sullivan spent the winter of 1990 living with a group of skiers in Utah and Wyoming, and used the experience as the foundation for his first novel, The Fall Line (1994). In 1995 he published Hard News, a thriller based on his work as a reporter, and a year later he released The Purification Ceremony, which won the WH Smith Award for Best New Talent. His most recent work is Private Games (2012), which he co-authored with James Patterson. Sullivan lives with his family in Montana, where he skis, hunts, and practices martial arts.
With a new name and a face altered by plastic surgery, a former money launderer for a powerful drug cartel flees to the Utah mountains. 2 cassettes.
Out west, winter storms begin as collisions of cold and warm air in the Gulf of Alaska. The two battle for control, cold winning, then racing southeast to land, across the coastal mountain ranges to the deserts of the Great Basin. There the fronts accelerate and gather fury, boiling high over the purple sage and the brine flats until they draw one last infusion of moisture crossing Utah's Great Salt Lake and then slam into the chill, nearly-vertical wall of the Wasatch mountains. One canyon, the Little Cottonwood, seems to suck the dark storm clouds into itself, up its nine-mile rip, up 8,000 feet to the half-dozen peaks and ridges that form the series of alpine bowls called Alta. Trapped by the jagged crags and the frozen cirques, the clouds are squeezed as if by a giant hand milking udders and a snow like no other falls.
The snow drops on the snake-like two-lane road that climbs the canyon to the base of the mountain. It falls on the series of steel towers and cables that make up the lifts that hoist the skiers high into the alpine terrain. It covers the five small lodges at the base of Alta's spires and ridges—shelter for the powder addicts who come to fly through the perfect snow the locals call "Peruvian."
After years of experimentation, each die-hard skier develops his own system of grading powder. Jack Farrell was no different. When he was a young man skiing at Alta for the patrol, his method of classification ran lead, dough, oatmeal, flour. Three months after his return to the canyon, after a nearly twelve-year absence, he had reappraised his system; he decided that the finest powder snow, which falls only in the Little Cottonwood during January, February, and March, resembles air more than frozen water. "White ether," Farrell called it, an infinitely elastic and friable snow that when deep—that is, measured in increments of feet rather than inches—will flood the lungs and leave the skier thrilled that he has flirted with the sensation of drowning.
By early March, four months after he'd fled his former life, Farrell had almost fully succumbed to the pleasures of choking. He compared it to nitrogen narcosis, the rapture of the deep, the hallucinatory dream state he'd entered once scuba diving far off the coast of California. There he'd twisted and sighed and almost drifted off into the blackness. Deep powder was different; in the snow he had no artificial lung to keep him sane. The deeper the powder, the more Farrell had to hold his breath and deny his brain oxygen, so that at times he felt flush with a sense of invincibility, and at others inexplicably hysterical with laughter. No matter how many turns he made through the white ether, it stirred in him a constant battle of terror and joy.
Within the ecstatic black dream of these past few days, as dark clouds dumped sixty inches of new powder on the steep slopes, he'd been visited by phantoms—one a skier, the other a snowboarder—who'd shadowed him as he skied off in the woods each day, dropping into chutes and gullies that swirled with fresh snow, shooting off ledges far from the marked trails, dancing on the line between control and abandon.
There! The skier darted through the trees off to his right. Then the snowboarder in a flashing arc of neon burst onto the open slope to his left. In a mad rush to lose them, Farrell let his skis run and he dropped off a twenty-foot ledge into a spruce glade, dodging the sharp branches of the trees as he sailed through the air. He landed and burst into an opening in the woods, understanding that he'd lost the snowboarder, but not the skier. Farrell accelerated and aimed himself at the thickest stand of firs he could see, recklessly disregarding the damage their thick limbs might do. He picked a tight opening and charged into it, splintering the dead branches in his path with his armored gloves and aluminum ski poles.
Farrell was out there now, approaching the extreme, where a mistaken reflex demands penance. Pressure built behind his eyes. His chest thudded with the thick blows of a boxer. A strange static noise rang in his ears. Behind him he heard branches snap as the skier followed. Farrell grunted as he popped onto a narrow shelf of snow. He took a turning leap, twenty-five feet off a quartzite cliff, made one turn on a ledge, whipping the ski tips like scythes through the brush, then fell again, fifteen feet and felt the deep snow burst over his head as he landed. Far above him someone cursed.
Farrell skied away, reconfirming a basic truth about himself: that though he loved the jolt of falling, the blast before the nod, it did not sate his need. No, Farrell knew that as much as he craved the swell in his throat as he glided through the air, what he needed most was the numbing, deep powder landing, snow fountains bursting about his head, a cold, wet opiate dulling the ache of lost love and the sick-saccharine stench of spent cordite.
He dropped down through the trees toward the run-out. An explosion rocked the valley. He jerked to a stop, bile rushing up the back of his throat. It was a sound he knew well; the patrolmen were out with dynamite to blow the high gullies and peaks so they wouldn't avalanche and kill the customers. But his thoughts continued to be haunted by the possibility that Gabriel Cortez's men might track him and attempt a direct attack. This he had learned the hard way: betrayal in love and business are things Latin men never forget. Farrell nodded to himself to affirm the idea. He recited a melodramatic list of how he might be taken: a blaze of gunfire, a merciless beating, razor blades.
Then again, he thought, as he poled his way back up the hill toward the lift line. How would they find me here? My truck is registered in Texas under the name of Nathaniel Collins, an infant who'd died of spinal meningitis in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, in 1958, the same year I was born 2,000 miles away in Bangor, Maine.
It was an easy process, one that Farrell had learned from Cortez's right-hand man, Jorge Cordova: look up the death of a baby about your age in a remote town, then ask for a birth certificate. Send away for a social security number, then establish bank accounts, credit cards, and driver's licenses. What is identity these days? Farrell asked himself. Random blips of information on a glowing screen?
It was 10 A.M. when he got into the empty line. The patrol had kept the Wildcat area closed all morning because of avalanche. But he knew the routine, it was only a matter of time. First in line. He stood stock still, his hood zipped closely around his face to shut out the biting wind, listening to powder junkies like himself taking their places in line behind him.
"Single, mon?" a voice asked.
Farrell turned to see a man twenty, maybe twenty-one, a kid really, who he decided was as close as you could come to the personification of a cubist painting: his frame was a triangle, thin hips and broad shoulders that were set off by his neon orange and yellow jumpsuit; his freckled, tanned face was a box dominated by a jaw that broke away from his neck like a brick; and topping this crash of angles were shards of pale blond hair that splintered off his forehead and cut at his neck. Dreadlocks. He'd seen kids like this all along the Southern California coast. A white rastaman. Only this kid carried a snowboard, not a surfboard; he was a thrasher. One of the phantoms.
"Why have you been following me?" Farrell demanded.
"Making a movie," the rastaman said, shaking the snow from the snakes of hair that hung from his head. "French lady I'm up here for, she don't ski much, only the mellow slopes. But she saw you doing your wild-assed shake in the trees. Told us to trail you. Said she wants you on film."
"Not interested," Farrell said.
"Not interested in glory, mon? Celluloid glory? Shit, I didn't think that was possible these days. Sigmund said the poor ego ... it has to serve three harsh masters. I always thought ego was a slave."
Farrell stared back at the kid. "I'm no one's slave."
Through the pale goggles the rastaman wore, Farrell saw the boy's eyes twist uncomfortably.
"Right, mon," he said. "I can see that. You're no slave. Just the same, she wants you on film."
"Why doesn't she ask me herself, this French lady?" Farrell asked.
The boy snorted. "On the hill on a day like this? In the storms or when we're storming, Inez gets all pale and psycho. Just watches, mon. Inez just likes to watch."
The second phantom, the skier, skated up through the driving snow. He was long and lean, more than six feet, dressed in a navy blue snowsuit and a yellow hat and white, dark-lensed goggles. He cocked his head to one side and looked at Farrell. Then he asked the rastaman: "He in?"
"Says he's got no taste for the cameras, mon."
"Matthew Page," the other skier said, holding out his hand.
Farrell hesitated, nodded, but did not take the man's hand. He recognized the name from ski magazines. Page had been big on the scene for a few years in the mid 1980s, then mysteriously disappeared. He was an extreme skier, the sort who challenges slopes so steep, one false turn can mean death. He was somewhat famous for sickening drops off cliffs sixty feet or more. And in that moment, Farrell understood why Page held his head at an awkward angle: he had read that Page lost his left eye as a teenager.
"I've heard of you," Farrell said. "My name's Nate Collins."
Page let his hand drop. "Never heard of you, but you're what Inez wants. Newcomers or comeback boys, like me," Page said. He pointed to the snowboarder. "This is Jerry Milburn."
"The Wave, mon," the rastaman said, smiling out from under a twisted white knot of hair that jutted out over his nose.
"How's that?" Farrell asked.
"He likes to be called The Wave," Page said.
"Didn't know there was snow in Jamaica," Farrell said in a sarcastic tone.
"Never been there, mon," The Wave said. "But I'm always in a Kingston state of mind, you know? Mostly I like the look, sets me apart. People never remember Jerry Milburn. They know The Wave."
Farrell grinned in spite of himself.
"I know, mon," The Wave said. "Madison Avenue. Human as billboard. But I know the rules of celebrity and image is one of them."
"Glory in celluloid."
"Now you're on it, old one."
"Inez wants to talk," Page said.
"No desire, sorry," Farrell said. He looked up into the storm.
"Inez can be persistent," Page said. "Convinced me to try when I thought no one would want to take a chance again. The Wave, she snagged him just as they kicked him off the team at Mammoth."
"Hey, mon, difference of opinion," The Wave protested.
"Believe what you want, Wavo," Page said.
"No desire," Farrell said again.
"But mon ..." The Wave began.
"Fuck him," Page said. "Probably couldn't cut it anyway."
Farrell leaned over his poles and watched the snow collect. It was like looking at a ceiling, the longer he studied, the more images he saw: a boat racing across open water, a tiny blue hand clutching a blanket, a bull with an egret riding its back.
"It's hypnotic, staring at snow," said a tall man in a red anorak and navy blue nylon pants who'd skied up next to Farrell.
The man turned slightly to reveal a pale face and thin gray lips. Farrell gulped. He knew the man, or had known him years before. His name was Paul Timmons and they had served together on the Alta ski patrol. Back then Timmons was a rangy kid with a startling shock of black hair. Like Farrell, he was fresh out of college with a degree in economics and the simple need to be a vagabond for a couple of years. Although Farrell couldn't say they were close friends, they had logged many hours together; they had been comrades. Last Farrell had heard, Timmons was working real estate in Texas. It had been more than ten years since they'd seen each other, but Farrell noticed in an instant the loss of weight, the weakness in Timmons's stance, and the pallor of his skin. Farrell knew Timmons was barely thirty. He looked fifty.
"It's like looking at fire," Farrell said softly.
Timmons smiled and shuffled into place next to Farrell. "These are the days we dream of, aren't they?"
Farrell nodded, praying that the slight quiver in his shoulders would not show through the heavy fabric of his parka. Though Farrell had recognized other people in the canyon since he'd arrived, he understood that the government's surgeons had done their job well. The scars would heal with time. He'd revealed his true identity to only one person, Frank Portsteiner, his old supervisor, who now worked down the road at the Snowbird ski area.
Timmons pointed up the mountain toward the flank of Wildcat Bowl, a heavily wooded area filled with chutes and ledges.
"I woke up this morning and watched a spruce grouse waddling around up there through my binoculars," he said. "They always come out at dawn to feed during the big storms. Ever seen them?"
"Just yesterday," Farrell said, aware now that Timmons didn't recognize him from Adam.
"Yeah, this old bird was just out there in the gale behind the place I rented for the week," Timmons said. "The wind turned steady out of the north. She sensed a big blow coming because she ruffled her feathers and got down in a wallow. She tucked her head under her wing and the wind blew snow over her until you could barely make her out."
Timmons let loose with a dry, hacking cough that made Farrell wince. "I'd call that a good sign," he said when he'd recovered.
Farrell stared straight ahead. "A very good sign."
Behind them the crowd had swelled to almost ninety skiers, all of them groaning to be up in fresh deep. Page stomped up and down in his tracks and howled. He landed on the back of Farrell's skis and Farrell twisted to display his practiced, cornered-animal expression. Page jerked back. Behind Page, someone in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear said: "Guy's cheesed. Been standing first in line everyday for two months. Fucking Swiss cheese."
Timmons hacked again. "That's what they used to say about me," he said. "Always had to be first up the mountain."
The lift started to creak forward. The attendant waved Timmons and Farrell on. Page and the Wave followed. The crowd roared at the thought of cutting almost two feet of virgin white.
On the long lift ride up the mountain, Farrell tolerated the silence as long as he could, then told Timmons the lie he'd created for Collins: that he was taking a couple of years off, a financial executive from New York City tired of the buy and sell, tired of the pace, in need of rejuvenation.
Timmons coughed. "Must be nice. I've got a wife and two kids back home. Couldn't afford the luxury. Have to come up here once a year though. Puts me back in touch with things."
Timmons shifted in the chair and pointed back over his shoulder into the storm. "Can't see it back there, but just about directly behind us, across the street, is Cardiac Ridge.
"I worked here a couple of years, ski patrolman," Timmons continued. "One night after a storm, must have been late January, oh, '78. Full moon. Six of us got drunk and climbed the ridge. We took off in pairs, carving huge figure eights in the snow."
Before he could stop himself, Farrell said: "A moon dance." He had been one of the six, all of them breaking off pieces of spruce and tucking them in the bands of their ski goggles, like antennas, before they skied down the mountain. The fir branches were insurance: if a skier got stuck in the deep powder, stalled in his descent, the others could swoop down and break the tension in the snow around the trapped skier and let him continue.
"How'd you know we called it that?" Timmons demanded.
Farrell coughed and pointed ahead: It was time to get off the lift. He pulled over to the side of the trail and tightened his boots. It gave Farrell time to think, time to lie.
He said, "About a month ago, I was standing in line and looked up there on the ridge and saw these perfect sets of tracks dropping down the side of Cardiac. An old guy standing in line with me, name's Portsteiner. When I pointed to them, that's what he said: 'Moon dance.'"
"I saw Frank last night," Timmons said. "Hasn't changed a bit in fifteen years. Like the mountain itself."
Page and The Wave whizzed by toward the avalanche rope. Timmons asked Farrell if wanted to ski some. Farrell said, no, without explaining. Before Farrell skied away, however, he looked back briefly over his shoulder at Timmons, who rubbed at the back of his neck, then pushed off, picking his way down the hill in a slow, smooth roll.
Excerpted from The Fall Line by Mark T. Sullivan. Copyright © 1995 Mark T. Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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