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Larry Gerald might not have thought it too odd to find an abandoned ski boot on the Star City slopes, but it's what he found inside it that was most unexpected.
He spied the gray boot resting atop the still-solid snow base at the edge of a copse of pine trees, their branches currently green and not powdered with the white stuff. It was his first day on a snowboard, which might have contributed to his piqued curiosity about the boot. He'd taken a lesson but had spent more time on his behind than upright on the board. He welcomed an excuse for a moment's rest as he came to an awkward stop next to the boot and sat back onto the snow.
"Ouch," he said, realizing that even sitting was going to cause some pain for a little while. He was out of the way for a minute or two, he thought as he looked toward the run. Most of the boarders were at least ten years his junior and moved down the mountain or through the half pipe as if their snowboards were extensions of their legs, not something foreign buckled onto them.
He shook his head at himself and his inability to accept that even he, onetime star athlete, was destined to lose a little of his innate athletic ability once he reached thirty, never mind thirty-five. Besides, he'd been a swimmer, not a skier. Different muscles.
He smiled then, because none of that mattered. He was having a great time in Star City, Utah, taking a well-deserved vacation and enjoying the sights, the sounds, and the greatest snow on earth, according to the Utah tourism Web site he'd perused before booking the trip. He didn't have much to compare it to, but the snow did seem pretty great and Star City was spectacular. Even now he could look out and see the valley that held charming shops and even more snow-covered slopes alive with happy skiers and snowboarders. Life was good.
For the most part. Law school had been rough, the divorce rougher. Still plenty of time to make a good go of it, though.
He reached over for the boot, thinking that he could tuck it under one arm and drop it off at lost and found. He'd been so off-balance on the board that carrying a boot the rest of the way down couldn't possibly make the experience any worse.
Ski boots are naturally heavy, but there was something different about this one, something weirdly balanced, maybe. With the boot in his thick-gloved grip, he peered inside.
And then he screamed and tossed the boot away, sending it flying a short distance through the air, landing only a few feet from him on its side.
Though the inside of the boot had been filled mostly with what Larry would describe as "gore," he knew he'd seen the foot, ankle, and sock that had originally gone into the boot. When it had been attached to the rest of a body.
His breathing and heart rate sped up immediately, and though he'd never hyperventilated or had a panic attack, he knew that something like that was about to happen.
He noticed a snowboarder making her way toward him. She'd either heard his scream or noticed the flying ski boot and drops of blood that now fell across a small patch of the whitest snow ever, making it not so much the greatest snow anymore.
"Hey," she said as she took off her helmet and goggles, pieces of her curly blond hair escaping its ponytail. "You okay?"
"I know you," Larry said, oddly zoning in on the fact that he'd seen the girl before.
"You might have come into my great-grandfather's shop, The Rescued Word. I work there sometimes. I'm Marion."
He nodded and wished he could just keep his attention on her and that wonderful shop rather than what he'd seen a few moments before.
"Are you hurt?" she asked again. "The blood . . ."
"It's not my foot," Larry said.
"What?" Marion asked, but realization came over her features quickly. "Oh. In the boot. There's a foot?"
"Well, that . . . that just sucks."
She didn't look into the boot, but she swooned for a beat or two. Larry tried to get up to help her, but his legs were spaghetti. Fortunately, she recovered quickly.
"I'm okay, and I can get help," she said, holding her hand up to stop him. He fell back onto his sore behind again.
Marion pulled out her phone and looked at the screen for a moment before she tapped it. She brought her eyebrows together as she inspected Larry. He was trying to look like he was okay, but he wasn't, not even close.
"Aunt Clare. Hey, will you call Jodie and tell her there's a problem up on Thor? Yeah, the half-pipe run. No, I'm not hurt. I'm up here with a man, though. Yeah, he found something that the police need to see. Okay, well, I'm not going to look in it, but I think it's a ski boot with a foot still inside. Only the foot."
Larry didn't bother to add "ankle and sock too," but the words rattled through his shaken and muddled thoughts.
"Right," Marion said. She ended the call and smiled stiffly at Larry. "The police will be here quickly. You sure you're going to be okay?"
Larry nodded, thinking that maybe law school and even the divorce hadn't been all that bad after all.
"Yep, that's what it was," Jodie said as she sucked on her straw. She'd hit bottom two pulls ago, but she wasn't one to let any drops of pineapple shake go to waste.
I shook my head, having lost interest in my own hot fudge sundae. But Jodie was a cop; she was used to these sorts of things.
"Where was the rest of the body?" I asked.
"That's the million-dollar question."
"No clues at all?"
"None. Not much evidence either. It wasn't as . . . messy as you might think. Frozen for the most part. It was beginning to thaw."
"Oh, Jodie. I don't want to think about that." I pushed up my glasses.
"I understand. Let's just say there are no clues yet. We're hoping something turns up soon."
"Could the person still be alive?"
"It's a possibility, but we don't think it's likely. As of about thirty minutes ago, no one missing a foot has checked into any hospital in the western United States. Even someone trying to hide that they were hurt would be hard-pressed to try to take care of that sort of wound on their own. Most people would seek help even if they were guilty of something and afraid of getting caught."
We sat across from each other in a booth composed of a Formica table and pink vinyl bench seats, inside the diner across the street from The Rescued Word.
Shortly after I'd called Jodie to send out the troops for my niece, Marion, and the man on the Thor snowboard run, Marion actually came into the shop to tell the tale of the afternoon's brief but jarring adventure.
She hadn't been too shaken up, but she'd been bothered in a semifrantic sort of way. It had taken two hot chocolates and one of Chester's stories to get her back to her normal bubbly self. Chester, my grandfather and Marion's great-grandfather, was the original owner of The Rescued Word. He frequently made up stories, some of his most famous being about the carved wooden doors over the middle shelves of the shop, a building that used to house the Star City Silver Mining Company. All of his stories were wild fabrications, but today he worked extra hard to direct Marion's thoughts away from spooky ski boots by inserting whiskey-addled fairies and magic silver from the old mines. I think she was more perplexed than entertained, but before long she was smiling and questioning the plot's logic. Of course, her father, my brother, Jimmy, a single parent, would probably want her to seek therapy just to make sure she was really okay. Jodie had said that Marion hadn't seen much but had made the call to Clare based solely on what Mr. Gerald had said. Jodie also said that Marion would be fine; she was young and would move on soon enough-unless she was the one to have separated the foot from the body, Jodie had added with a sly grin.
"What about a skiing accident? Maybe the body got flung to a place you guys couldn't spot right off," I said.
"We're looking. That's another possibility, but, again, it's unlikely. There are just too many weird things that would have had to happen for it to be something like that. Of course, weird things do happen, so we'll see."
"Foul play, you think?"
"Probably. But it sure is a strange one."
"So, other than the boot, how's Marion doing?" Jodie said.
I thought a moment. "Oh, you mean the competition?"
"Yeah, sure. I'm worried about her."
"We all are, but she's moving past it."
Marion had been a part of the Olympic snowboard qualifying series of events this year. The Grand Prix had been held on our own Star City slopes. She'd aced the first two events, but then a heavy and sudden wave of self-doubt got in her head, and she couldn't finish, thus knocking her out of any chance to be invited to the team this time around. She was so young, still only sixteen, so she'd have another shot. But it had most definitely been a rough time for her. I'd tried to comfort her. Chester had tried to explain that it was not a big deal, that her life would be long and she'd have lots more chances, and Jimmy had continually wondered how he'd failed his daughter.
"Good. She'll do great the next time around," Jodie said.
"I think so too. That is, if her family doesn't get in her head too much. We're trying to figure out the right balance. But she's still hitting the slopes every day, and her coach says she's still improving, that she hasn't reached her peak. Maybe something deep inside her knew she wasn't ready yet. Hard to understand subconscious motivations."
Jodie gave up on the shake, moving the cup to the other side of her clean plate. We'd both ordered cheeseburgers and fries, but most of my food was still in front of me.
"How's it going with the visiting celebrity?" Jodie asked.
"Nathan is working hard and driving poor Adal crazy."
Nathan Grimes, worldwide famous horror author, had made The Rescued Word his temporary place of business. He'd enjoyed time in Star City before, working on a couple of his most popular and bestselling novels: Jump and Spark. All of his titles were one word. I hadn't had the chance to ask him how that had happened, but he'd been working with Adal for only a little over a week, and only part-time, as they planned and prepped to print a book of Grimes's poetry on the replica Gutenberg press that Chester had built in our workshop. It stood amid old typewriters, typewriter parts, tools, and typeface boxes. Nathan had heard about the press when he was in the middle of Spark, and he hadn't been able to shake the idea of self-publishing his poetry. I didn't know how well the book would sell, but anyone who'd read his horror novels was sure to be surprised by his romantic way with words.
Adal was my apprentice. He'd come from Germany with the hope that I would teach him everything I knew about rescuing words: fixing typewriters, operating an old Gutenberg printing press, repairing books, even where to find the best paper products throughout the world. He and many of his family members, the male ones, had shown up in January for the Star City Film Festival. They'd stopped in the shop, and before I could even understand most of their names, Chester had offered the apprenticeship position to Adal. It had turned into one of Chester's best decisions ever. Someday Adal would take his skills back to Germany, but he was ours for a while. His full name was Adalwulf, but he'd told us to call him Adal. Later we wondered whether he made the request to avoid being called Wulf instead.
Adal had been a part of The Rescued Word family during the Grand Prix in February, and had become a surprising source of comfort for Marion. He was a stranger from another land who brought a perspective that she somehow tuned in to. He'd helped us all, but mostly Marion. It was time for Marion's job at the shop to take a backseat to her dreams. She could still work on personalizing stationery on her computer at home and at the shop when she wanted to, but Chester had made it clear that she got to choose the best way to accomplish her goals. He'd quit complaining when she couldn't be found or was late because she was on the slopes. It would have been only Chester and me at the shop if Adal hadn't come along, and we all preferred the idea of an apprentice over a new employee.
"I'm sure Adal is doing fine with the famous author," Jodie said. "How's he doing as an apprentice?"
"He's a pro, but why do you ask?" I said, though I suspected I knew the answer.
Jodie shrugged. "He's taking Latin from Anorkory. You know that, don't you?"
I laughed about his lessons with our resident Latin teacher. "I do know that. German, French, Spanish, and English just weren't enough for him."
"He's very into languages."
"He's very into you," I said as I picked up my mug of hot chocolate. I took a sip and then looked at her over the top of the cup.
"It's hard to take your disapproval seriously when you have whipped cream on the tip of your nose," Jodie said.
I wiped off the cream.
"Better?" I said.
"A little, but I still don't understand your disapproval."
"Well. It isn't disapproval so much. It's concern."
"I'm listening." She took a drink of her water.
As casual as she seemed, I knew she was paying attention. I took advantage of the moment. "You and Mutt broke up only a couple of weeks ago, and I'm not really sure you broke up all the way."
"Oh, we broke up all the way. No worries there," Jodie said bitterly.
"Well, you haven't told me what happened. That's weird. You tell me everything."
"I do not tell you everything. You don't tell me everything either."
"Actually, I do," I said, a tinge of hurt in my voice. "What won't you tell me?"