Sherry Carrigan O'Toole can't seem to apply the prescriptions she offers in her bestselling self-help books to her own life. Six years after her marriage to Brandon disintegrated and he won custody of their son, Scott, there's no room in their lives for her. Hoping to win back the teenager's heart, Sherry arranges a week's skiing at the plush SkyTop Village resort.
But Scott has other plans. Determined to evade his mother's clutches, he jumps at the chance to join a foolhardy adventure: flying a Cessna through a nighttime storm to Salt Lake City for a Metallica concert. After the plane crashes, Scott is lost and alone in the frozen wilderness, miles from anywhere anyone would search for him.
As Brandon and Sherry revisit the old battles that tore them apart, they have to fight a bureaucracy that wants to abandon the search even as their son struggles to survive impossible odds.
Barely alive, Scott finally finds a cabin for shelter. He thinks his troubles are over. When he discovers the truth about the man who lives there, however, it's clear that his terror has hardly begun.
With his latest page-turner, John Gilstrap cements his position among today's most ingenious thriller writers.
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About the Author
John Gilstrap is the author of Even Steven, At All Costs, and Nathan¹s Run. A former firefighter and EMT, he is an explosives safety expert and an environmental engineer. He has a parallel writing career adapting books for the screen, including Word of Honor (from the Nelson DeMille novel) and Young Men and Fire (from the Norman Maclean book). John Gilstrap lives with his wife and son in Virginia. Visit his Website at johngilstrap.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Cessna danced all over the sky.
The pilot shouted to Scott over the engine noise, "Everything's gonna be just fine. The storm's just a little heavier than I'd anticipated."
A little heavier. As in, the walls of the Grand Canyon are a little steep.
The pilot tried to put the best face on it. "Forget it. In ninety minutes, our ears'll be bleeding from the music."
Scott shot him a look. "You told me ninety minutes a half hour ago."
The pilot tossed a tense shrug. "Like I said, the storm's worse than I thought."
Metallica was appearing at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, and the pilot a ski patroller named Cody Jamieson had somehow scared up two tickets from a couple of college kids who'd let the blizzard intimidate them. Nobody in their right minds would risk getting stranded on the back roads of the Wasatch in weather like this.
For Cody, however, road conditions were irrelevant. He had his very own airplane a twenty-five-year-old high-wing job that he'd picked up for a song and maintained himself in a little corner of the hangar at SkyTop's private airstrip. The idea was to fly out of the storm, then beat its arrival in Salt Lake City. If they ended up stranded after the concert, Cody knew some people at BYU who'd put them both up in a heartbeat.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The aircraft lurched violently, the worst bump yet, knocking Cody's flying charts onto Scott's lap. "Air currents," he explained before Scott could ask.
This whole thing was beginning to feel stupid. They'd met less than a week ago while Cody was writing Scott up for skiing out of control on Widow Maker. It turned out that the ticket was little more than a warning, but Scott had gone off like a bomb anyway. He was the only skier in control, for crying out loud. It was a matter of principle. He'd thrown down his poles and his hat, kicked off his skis, and was ready to fight it out. "Why don't you write up those assholes for doing two miles an hour on a black diamond slope?"
Cody ignored the challenge and asked him what he played.
The ski patroller nodded toward Scott's head. "The hair. I figure you've got to be part of a band."
Scott's bushy crop of blue hair had earned him the nickname Smurf from his soccer teammates. "Guitar," he said, caught off guard by the randomness of it. "Lead guitar." Just like that, the acrimony evaporated.
At twenty-one, Cody was five years Scott's senior, and also a guitarist heavy metal all the way. A first-year member of the patrol, the guy was anxious to find somebody to jam with, and Scott put him to shame. As payment for impromptu lessons, Cody introduced his new buddy to the gang, giving him the chance to slug down illegal beers and participate in the ski patrollers' late-night snowmobile races. Best of all, it gave Scott a reason to spend as much time as possible away from his mom. They dubbed him their mascot, and thanks to the nod from Cody, they treated him like a full-fledged member of the crowd almost more a member than Cody, who, as a rookie, was the brunt of unrelenting teasing and practical jokes.
So, when the Metallica tickets became available, Cody chose Scott.
But this snowstorm crap was more than he'd bargained for. Rodeo cowboys enjoyed smoother rides. "Do you have any idea what you're doing up here?" Scott shouted.
The question drew a nervous glance. "I know enough to find the airport and set us down."
"Then how come we're still in the air?"
"I think the winds blew us a little off course," Cody admitted.
Something in his tone sparked a note of terror. "Does that mean you don't know where we are?"
"It means I know reasonably well where I am. If I could just get a quick peek at the ground, it would help a lot."
The reality hit Scott like a slap. The only way to catch a glimpse of the ground was to get closer to it, and here in the mountains, that was a good way to get snatched out of the sky by a rock. "Why don't you call on the radio? They'll look at your spot on the radar screen and tell you where you are." Scott had seen enough movies to know how this sort of thing worked.
Cody Jamieson seemed not to hear the question. When Scott repeated it, he snapped, "I don't have a transponder, okay? They can't see me on their screen."
"Well, call in a Mayday, then."
Again, Cody seemed not to hear.
"The radio doesn't work."
Cody didn't bother to repeat himself.
Scott's head swam with the utter stupidity of it all. He was in the company of a moron, but he swallowed his anger. Never piss off the only guy who knows how to fly the plane. "Can you at least turn up the heat?" he asked. "I'm freezing."
This time, he didn't even expect an answer. He pulled the headphones from his Discman over his knit cap, hit Play, and cranked up the volume. That done, he pulled his seat belt tighter, donned his gloves, and tried not to think about the approaching wave of air sickness.
With his eyes closed, he tried to become a part of the music, to forget about the danger. The Stones CD was one he'd stolen from his dad's collection not his first choice for facing death, but he wasn't about to go fishing for something new. As he tried to concentrate on the power and complexity of Keith Richards's guitar licks, Scott did his best to ignore the slamming beat of his heart.
Cody Jamieson's terrified shriek cut through the music like a razor through flesh. Scott snapped his eyes open and started yelling, too, even before he saw the obstacle that loomed up out of the darkness ahead of them.
By the time he realized it was a tree, they'd already hit it.
Sherry Carrigan O'Toole sat in the far corner of the White Peaks Lounge. She thought of it as the power spot the one from which she could take in the entire room with a single glance. The place was packed, despite the $9.00 price tag on the drinks, and the atmosphere positively vibrated with news of the blizzard. Sherry gleaned from her targeted eavesdropping that as good as the slopes had been these past couple of days, another foot or two of fresh powder would make this the vacation of a lifetime. Add the presence of the president of the United States, who had already proclaimed SkyTop Village to be his family's longtime favorite vacation spot, and the tongue-waggers could barely contain their enthusiasm.
In the forty-five minutes that Sherry had been waiting for Larry to show up, she'd been hit on twice, once by a ski patroller who looked like the Marlboro Man, and the second time by a guy in his sixties who must have had a lot of money, because guys that ugly always had a lot of money. On a different day, she might have been complimented by the attention, but not today. This whole trip had been a disaster from the very start. Brandon had Scotty so thoroughly brainwashed that she'd never had a chance to break through to the boy.
In fact, at the close of their fifth day in skiers' paradise (and Sherry's personal hell), they were further apart than when they'd arrived. How was that for gratitude? Here, she'd negotiated him a week off from school, footed the bill for him to spend a week in the place he'd always dreamed of going, and he copped an attitude because she didn't want to ski. Like that was some big surprise? She'd never liked to ski.
For the better part of a week, then, they'd barely seen each other, their interaction limited mostly to breakfasts on the heels of his late-night returns, his breath smelling of beer. Night before last, she could have sworn that he purposely breathed on her to get a rise. Nice try. She'd be damned if she was going to play the queen-bitch role that ex-hubby Brandon had assigned to her. If Scotty wanted to experiment with underage drinking, then she couldn't think of a better, safer place for him to test his wings.
She took a long pull on her second cosmopolitan, noting that Carmella, her server-this-evening, was watching. Sherry signaled for one more.
The White Peaks Lounge was a room that didn't know what it wanted to be when it grew up. Built in the 1930s in the rustic style of the lodge itself, it seemed to be trying to attract a younger crowd. Unfortunately, the small cocktail tables and chrome-and-leather sling chairs didn't make the place look modern so much as it gave the impression of a retro yard sale.
For the last five minutes, she'd been matching avoided glances with a balding, forty-something guy sporting a cast on his arm. Every time she felt the heat of his gaze, she'd look up in time to see him looking someplace else. That kind of adolescent crap drove Sherry crazy. If they wanted to make a pass, then they should just have the balls to take their shot and get the rejection over with quickly.
Oh, shit, here he comes.
Armed with what had to be his third martini, the guy spun himself off his barstool and sauntered her way. Unlike so many of the other orthopedic victims she'd seen these past five days, this guy had an athletic look that told her he'd earned his injury doing something daring. As he approached, the eye contact held, and she greeted his smile with one of her own. Maybe rejection wasn't in his future after all.
"Excuse me," he said, gesturing to the empty seat. "Is this taken?" His smile was liquid from the booze.
Sherry gave him her coyest smile. "I've been saving it for my assistant, but he seems to be running a little late."
Mr. Charming pulled out the chair. "May I?"
"My name is Bernard Caplan. People call me Bernie." He extended his hand across the table and Sherry took it.
Why did that name ring a bell? "Pleased to meet you. I'm "
"You're Sherry Carrigan O'Toole," Bernie said.
Sherry felt herself blush. Ah, a fan...
"I've read your books. You caught me staring from over there, and rather than be mysterious, I thought I'd come on over and meet you personally."
Sherry did her fawning-fan giggle. "I'm so happy you did. And what did you do to your arm?"
Bernie made a face that said the injury didn't mean a thing. "Some beginner idiot on Dark Passage rammed me from behind yesterday. Broke my wrist. You know, I catch you on the radio from time to time."
This time, the giggle was real. Handsome, athletic and a fan. This had real possibilities.
"Do you recognize my name, by chance?" Bernie asked.
Sherry's eyes narrowed as she churned Bernard Caplan through her memory banks. Something was there, all right. Something so close...
"That's okay if you don't," Bernie said with a dismissive wave. "It's actually Doctor Bernie Caplan, and I'm the chief of psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia."
Something changed behind Bernie's eyes, and as it did, Sherry felt her stomach flip.
"I saw you here, and I thought to myself, 'When will I get another chance like this?' So, here I am." Just like that, with the precision that only a mental health practitioner can muster, all the humor evaporated from Dr. Bernard Caplan's face. "I wanted you to know that I think your brand of moralizing pop psychology does more harm to more people on a daily basis than all the world's missed diagnoses combined. In the past year alone, I've treated two teenaged girls who were depressed to the point of self-destruction because they could not meet the minimum standards of perfection you laid out in The Mirror's Not the Problem."
Sherry felt the muscles of her chest and abdomen tighten, preparing for battle. "That's 'minimum goals to strive for,' " she corrected. "And Mirror sold nearly a million copies in hardcover."
Bernie smiled. The real one wasn't nearly as attractive as the one he used to lure her off her guard. "You say that as if it's something to be proud of. Millions of people are duped every day by charlatans."
"Now listen here "
"There's no need to get defensive," Bernie said, showing his palms. "I just saw you here relaxing, having a good time, and I thought I'd share with you what you've put a real doctor through since you became the self-help quack-of-the-day."
A shadow fell across the table. "Is there something wrong here?" Finally, Larry had arrived. Six feet tall if he really stretched, and a hundred-fifty pounds on his fattest day, Larry Chinn's entire life was ruled by Sherry O'Toole and Gentlemen's Quarterly, not necessarily in that order. With his close-cropped, spiky bleached hair and tiny granny glasses, he was the poster child for closeted gays. Tonight, he wore chalet chic blue jeans and a turtleneck, with a cotton sweater tossed over his shoulders and, sensing the tension at the table, he tried his best to look intimidating.
"I think that Mr. Caplan was just leaving," Sherry said. She got the honorific wrong on purpose.
Caplan assessed Larry with a single condescending glance. "Indeed I was," he said. "But just remember, Sherry, one day the public will wake up to your nonsense, and you'll have to deal with your peers again." He stood. "When that day comes, I'll be waiting for you."
Now it was Sherry's turn to be smug. "Dream on, Caplan," she said. "If I decided to retire tomorrow, my great-grandchildren wouldn't know how to spend the money I've made."
Caplan raised his glass in a mock toast. "Until the malpractice suits," he said.
Larry watched him walk back to the bar, then slid into his place. "Is that true?" he asked.
"What? About malpractice?"
"No, about your grandchildren not being able to spend all the money you've made."
Sherry scowled. "Of course not." Then the scowl turned into a grin. "That'll happen in two more books."
Larry nodded at the dregs in Sherry's glass. "How far behind am I?"
"Two." Then, as if on cue, Carmella reappeared, a new drink balanced on her tray. "Soon to be three."
Larry ordered a White Russian ("heavy on the Russian, light on the white"), and finally they were alone in the crowd.
"I suppose you're wondering why I wanted you here," Sherry said.
"I only hope that it's for a long string of clichéd openings like, 'I suppose you're wondering why I wanted you here.' Want to know my sign?"
Sherry made a face that looked like a snarl. She leaned into the table and Larry joined her. "Have you been to the phone booth that they have the nerve to call a bookstore?" she asked.
"Actually, no. And given the fact that we're at one of the top five ski resorts in North America, with some of the finest powder I've ever seen, I can't imagine why."
Sherry was in no mood for irony. "They only have three of my books," she said. "Actually, to be more precise, they only have three copies of one book Mirror and that's only in paperback. There's not a single copy of Mirror II. Do you know how embarrassing that is? My seminar is in two days, and they've only laid in three paperbacks."
Larry looked at her like she'd sprouted leaves. "Sherry, do they carry any hardcovers?"
Sherry took a sip of her cosmo. "I don't know."
"Well, if the store is as small as you say, they probably don't."
"What about It's All in Your Smile or The Microwave Mom?" Sherry protested. "They're both in paperback, and neither of them are in the store."
Larry sighed deeply and looked over his shoulder to check on the progress of his drink. "Have you thought about taking a skiing lesson? I mean, my God, Sherry, you need a little life here."
"I don't participate in sports where gravity and trees combine as mortal enemies."
Larry laughed. "Why are you here? Why take a seminar gig at a ski resort if you hate skiing?"
"You know damn well why."
Larry rolled his eyes. "Right. Brandon and Scott. God forbid they have fun together. You know, there's something really twisted in all that."
"What's twisted," she said, "is that 'Team Bachelor' crap. Makes me sick."
Sherry tried her best to show a flash of anger, but she knew Larry wouldn't buy it. They'd known each other too long, gone through too many adventures together. No one fully understood her relationship with Larry Sherry wasn't entirely sure she understood it herself but he was the one person who understood her. She called him her assistant mostly because the world frowned on the notion of paid companions. Half of the professional publishing world assumed that they were lovers, and the other half assumed that they were both gay. Sherry honestly didn't give a shit.
"Well, it'd be one thing if you trumped Brandon in doing something you actually enjoyed, but as it is now, who's laughing harder, know what I mean?"
Sherry sighed. "I know exactly what you mean." She took another sip of her drink, just as the White Russian arrived for Larry. "I'm not a total bitch, you know. I did actually hope that maybe Scotty and I could get to know each other a little better. But I never see him."
"That's because he's skiing, Sherry. Ski resort. Skiing. Do you see the link?"
Sherry laughed in spite of herself. "Well, during the day, sure. But I don't even see him in the evenings. God knows what he's been eating."
"He's sixteen. He hates the world."
Sherry thought about that. Adolescence was defined all over the world by rebellion. It was the same in every culture, every race, every religion. She'd heard some interesting theories that it was true in every species. Sometimes she wondered if teenagers didn't in fact become a different species for a while.
She checked her watch. "Tonight, for example," she said. "The last thing we said to each other as he was on his way out to the slopes was, let's meet for dinner. He was supposed to call me, or at least leave a message at the chalet, but no. Not a word." She saw Larry's eyes shift. "What?"
"You know something."
He made a face like she was crazy, but he squirmed in his chair. "I know a lot of things."
Sherry wasn't buying it. "You wear a guilty conscience like a badge, Larry. Let me hear it."
"I told Scott I wouldn't say anything," he hedged. Way to hold out till the end.
He sighed. "He went to Salt Lake City."
Sherry's jaw dropped. "He what?"
Larry squirmed some more. "There's a concert there. He went with some ski patrol guy he met. Nice guy. I did a couple of runs with both of them."
Sherry couldn't believe she was hearing this. "Have you looked at the weather out there? How on earth are they going to drive to Salt Lake City?"
More squirming. "They're, um, not driving, actually. His friend is a private pilot. He owns his own plane."
This time, Sherry's rage was real. "Jesus, Larry, how long have you known about this?"
Her anger surprised him. "Since this morning."
"And you didn't say anything?"
"What was I going to say?"
"Oh, I don't know, something like, 'Hey, Sherry, your son has lost his mind.' My God, they're flying in this weather?"
Larry dismissed her with a wave as he took another sip of his drink. "Will you relax? If it wasn't safe, they wouldn't let them take off in the first place."
Copyright © 2003 by John Gilstrap