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Hollywood Gothic

CONTENTS

  1. Cover
  2. About the Book
  3. About the Author
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
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    2. 2
    3. 3
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About the Book

Convicted of murder, a screenwriter gets a chance to clear his Name.

The police find Toby Challis clutching his bloodstained Oscar statuette, his wife dead at his feet. He claims innocence, but the jury doesn’t buy it, believing that such a cinematic murder could spring only from the mind of one of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters. Nearly driven mad by the time spent waiting for the verdict, Challis has no idea how he will survive more than a decade in the big house. Lucky for him, he won’t have to find out - yet.

To transport Challis to prison, the state provides only an old prop plane. A freak blizzard hits it hard, knocking it out of the sky and killing everyone on board but the convict. Challis escapes into the woods, to find the man who killed his wife and plan what every script needs: a Hollywood ending.

Review Quote:

“Good reading ... saturated with Hollywood, old and new.” - The New York Times 

About the Author

Thomas Gifford (1937–2000) was a bestselling author of thriller novels. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, he moved to Minnesota after graduating from Harvard. After eight years as a traveling textbook salesman, he wrote Benchwarmer Bob (1974), a biography of Minnesota Vikings defensive end Bob Lurtsema. The Wind Chill Factor (1975), a novel about dark dealings among ex-Nazis, introduced John Cooper, a character Gifford would revisit in The First Sacrifice (1994). The Wind Chill Factor was one of several books Gifford set in and around Minneapolis.

Gifford won an Edgar Award nomination for The Cavanaugh Quest (1976). The Glendower Legacy (1978), a story about an academic who discovers that George Washington may have been a British spy, was adapted for the film Dirty Tricks (1981), starring Elliott Gould. In the 1980s Gifford wrote suspense novels under the pen names Thomas Maxwell and Dana Clarins. In 1996 he moved back to Dubuque to renovate his childhood home. He died of cancer in 2000.

Hollywood Gothic

Thomas Gifford

 

for Camille

I am not I;

he is not he;

they are not they.

It ain’t a business. It’s a racket. …

—Harry Cohn

1

TOBY CHALLIS LIT A CIGARETTE and tried to remember his lines. He’d been trying to remember his lines ever since that night in Malibu, and it was a hell of a job. But now was definitely the moment for a cigarette, eyes squinting against the smoke, jaw firm in a grim, heroic, existential smile. … It was a little cheap as actors’ tricks went, but that was the point. Cheap and easy, and it almost always worked. Not always: he was no actor, and he felt like a hybrid, a cloddish miscalculation, half Humphrey Bogart and half Danny Kaye as Walter Mitty. He tried to think of a tough little joke for the guards, something to dribble philosophically from the corner of the grim little smile, but that was where he ran into trouble. His script needed a damn good polish, maybe even a rewrite. Sure, a rewrite … beaucoup bucks, but worth it, a damned good rewrite by the best in the business. But he was the best in the business, Toby Challis was money in the bank, and he couldn’t think of anything funny to say to the guard. Shit, the main guy always had a wisecrack for the cop-at-the-end …

He looked around at the dark, empty hangar: oil-spotted concrete floor, the smell of small planes, jet fuel, and lubricant and grease, the peculiar nastiness laid across the scene by the pervasive cold, dampness. The lights of the main terminal glowed far across the runways. The rain diffused the luminescence, gave the structure the look of a UFO settling down to swallow them all up and take them to a better place where the music was playing and the lights were bright and gay. … a place where Mickey and Judy had come up the pathway past the great oak tree and found the barn of their dreams … What a place for a show! We can do it, I know we can. …

He shook his head, forced the unreality away. It was happening more frequently in recent days. He would be sitting in his cell, reading a novel or a magazine, and somehow he would find himself fitted neatly into a movie, never one that he’d written, but always someone else’s. One day he drifted off into Mr. Lucky and he’d have sworn it was all solid reality: the gambling boat, the fog on the pier, and Cary Grant spotting Laraine Day. … Another time, the mountain village in Out of the Past had taken the place of his cell, and he’d walked with young Bob Mitchum from the filling station to the café with the nosy waitress, and sat down, ordered pie and coffee. … While these interludes were wonderfully enjoyable, they worried him. He had enough sense left to know that madness lay that way, good-bye and into the bin, Toby old fruit. Yet, the years ahead, destined to be passed in a cell with a lidless toilet and a bed hinged to the goddamn wall, those years were psychically unacceptable. He wondered when he’d start screaming and not be able to stop.

The rain had slackened somewhat from the morning’s feverish downpour, hung now like a fragile Japanese screen rippling in the breezes. The sky was a dirty, smudged gray and the big jets whined and howled like a riot at the zoo. The newspapers said the two-year drought was over, in its place a series of God’s little jokes, watery disasters, villages swept away, graveyards excavated, vast meandering homes dumped down canyon walls and disappearing beneath thousands of tons of mud and shale. Malibu was hammered day and night by the storms off the Pacific … that made him remember the beach house where he had once worked so well, gotten drunk far too often on fine Laphraoig, and discovered just what sort of woman Goldie was. … And he inevitably remembered her lying there, still warm, her blond hair clotted with blood and matter, and his Oscar with its special marble base on the floor not far away. The marble was sticky. There were a few strands of long blond hair glued to the stickiness, and he recognized the scene, when it came sweeping toward him like a runaway meat wagon, recognized it without hesitation because he had been there before, a hundred times. At the movies.

“Won’t be long now.” One of the guards stood at his shoulder, a man of fifty or so who was friendly and matter-of-fact about Challis’ predicament. His name was Daniels and he had a brother-in-law who lived in Newport Beach and was a cutter at Twentieth, nominated for an Oscar once. He enjoyed chatting about the show business with Challis, ignored the fact that Goldie’s head had been caved in with an Oscar. “Lousy weather, either you got your drought and your Santa Anas, or you got your flood.” He lit a cigarette and frowned at the rain. “But we’ve got a clearance to go.” He blew smoke into the wind and coughed. “I want you to know, if it was up to me you wouldn’t have to wear the bracelets. Stupid. Where the hell they think you’re gonna go? Wouldn’t get far with that famous face—trial made you a star, y’know.” Challis smiled, nodded, could think of nothing to say. What was there to say? He was afraid, quite desperately afraid. Prison society: he’d seen enough television shows devoted to the inhumanity of life inside, the brutality, the bestiality. And now Toby Challis, a screenwriter with impressive connections and an Oscar, convicted of beating his wife’s brains into the rug, was sentenced to life imprisonment, open and shut. Toby Challis, forty-two-year-old white American male, sheltered until recently from life’s harsher side, was going to find out what was true about life on the inside and what was worse than the stuff you heard.

The pilot was chatting with the other guard and the copilot. Unexpectedly he broke into a hearty, rumbling laugh and shook his head. The guard and the copilot nodded appreciatively. For an instant the pilot looked across the width of the hangar’s sliding door, caught Challis’ eye, looked away, his face suddenly sober.

“Being inside—you’ll get used to it,” Daniels said. “Fifteen years, you’ll be out, a new man. … They got lots of books inside, movies, all that stuff. …” He sucked at the cigarette. Challis wondered how many times he’d said the same thing to other poor unfortunates, ax murderers, slashers, stranglers, trash-bag killers … the whole cast.

“I’ll be nearly sixty,” Challis said. “Not so new … a different man, though, I’ll buy that.”

Daniels nodded philosophically. “Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, I hope it was worth it to you. There’s always the damned bill to pay at the end. My father, bless his soul, used to tell me about the free lunch he’d get at the saloon … how he used to lament that free lunch, no free lunch anymore, he’d say. Always got the tab waiting for you.”

Challis shrugged. What was there to say?

“It’s not quite the middle age I’d seen for myself,” he said at last.

Daniels flipped his cigarette butt into a puddle and ground it out beneath a heavy heel. He began whistling tunelessly, looked at his watch, clasped his hands behind his back. Challis leaned against the doorway—the huge sliding doors—and stared out at the rain.

There was, in fact, a middle age he’d seen for himself. Not a middle age exactly, but a sort of time he’d thought of as an Indefinite Future, a time when he’d gotten through the clutter of problems and difficulties which always seemed to be littering the path, everyone’s paths. There was always a piece of work to be gotten past: a screenplay which inevitably went wrong and required a fifth version, a sixth, to meet the approval of a banker or an executive’s wife or girlfriend … or even an offer to do a piece of junk for money he couldn’t quite refuse, for a trip to Australia or Romania or some other place he knew he’d never visit on his own. There was always something. There was Goldie and how she was going to be resolved: how the problems she created would finally have to be sorted out. But up ahead, somewhere, was that Indefinite Future he wanted, intended to have.

It had always appeared to him the same way. A man wearing an immaculate white suit, a pale blue shirt, a white tie with a touch of cream in it, stood above a beach, leaning on a stone wall. The breakers frothed against the pale, smooth sand, and sunshine exploded like a rain of diamonds on the shifting surface of the water. Tanning bodies lay motionless on beach towels, and the soft wind kept the man dry, though the day was hot. He wore dark glasses. He leaned against the wall, watching the people on the beach, who never moved a muscle; then he walked away through the crowds surging along the pavement by the wall. The only sound in this faintly surreal vision of his own private promised land came from the furling surf, like the little white box that reproduced the swishing sound and which he plugged in and kept by his bed when he ventured away from Malibu. That, and from somewhere came the sound of a Django Reinhardt-kind of guitar and a song at once familiar yet not quite identifiable. When he thought about it, which was often enough to keep the scene fresh in his mind, he assumed that he was the man in the white suit who seemed to enjoy his surroundings but was somehow untouched by them: a calm, serene, uninvolved observer who was there, but wasn’t there, all at the same stray moment. He remembered an inscription he’d once seen on a sundial. Horas non numero nisi sennas. I count only the hours that are serene.

Now, of course, the future looked quite different, and in a way it was all Goldie’s fault. Simple-mindedly, worn down by the trial and the blur of what had happened since he’d found himself staring down at her remains, he wondered how it could all have turned out the way it did. It was so remarkably unfair, and it made such a mess of the pretty, ambiguous, enigmatic picture in his head. The man on the quai in his white suit. …

When the small plane was ready, they wheeled it around in front of the hangar door, where it sat impudently crouched forward on the fragile, spindly wheel assembly protruding from its nose. Rain beaded on the silver fuselage, dripped off the back edge of the insubstantial-looking wings. A flying cell. No escape. Challis longed to slap his arms and get the blood circulating, but they were pinned in front of him by the handcuffs: he felt the scream of frustration building inside him and swallowed hard against it, pushing it back down his gullet toward the unpleasantness in his stomach. He’d have given his Mercedes for a drink.

“This is it, Mr. Challis.” A hand rested on his shoulder, gave him a gentle shove, and off he went across the rain-spattered tarmac like a small boy’s boat on a park pond. “Steps are slippery, Mr. Challis. Watch your head there. …” He climbed into the tight little cabin and settled in a rudimentary seat, where a guard buckled him snugly in. Daniels waved at him from the hangar doorway, flipped him the thumbs-up sign, and Challis tried to produce a confident smile. He didn’t want to worry Daniels. The cabin hatchway filled with the leathery-faced pilot, the copilot, one other prisoner who had been given an injection to calm him down, and the guard already on board slammed the hatch and locked it.

They began to taxi at once. The turboprops whirred loudly and everything shook and they were hurtling down the runway, climbing away, with the crosswinds buffeting them as they gained altitude. A hole in the weather, someone had called it back in the hangar. Some goddamn hole, he thought. Rain smeared greasily across the oval of glass beside his head. He had never flown in a tiny plane before: for some reason he’d thought the state would provide a smarter aircraft for transport to what he always thought of as the Big House. …

He closed his eyes and fought a new surge of claustrophobia, tightening fists between his knees, gritting his teeth. Better to drift off into the anesthesia of a movie playing inside his head—hey, you guys, what’s playing at the Brain tonight?—better than this intolerable, choking frustration. Could he cope? He forced his eyes open. Play Bogart. … He would have to look at the world and stifle the urge to shriek and ignore the handcuffs and the doors always locking him in and pull up his socks and cope. … But he had never imagined in his life what it would be like to be deprived of his freedom, the opportunity to get the hell up and leave. As the tiny aircraft pushed on through the shifting, changing clouds, he realized he faced a future of nothing but restraint. He supposed he would eventually go mad. Or go dumb, vegetable like, which would be even worse, though if it came to that, he supposed there wouldn’t be enough left of his brain to know it. …

From the beginning, the flight had seemed like such a bad idea, had been so tentative, so full of jumps and swerves and little ups and downs, that he’d grown accustomed to it. The cloud layers had gone from light to dark to light and back again. The winds had swiped at the plane often enough to have become an almost unremarkable aspect of the flight. And his mind had been operating in such a pit of depression that he was, in any case, too far gone to worry about the weather. He remembered a very amusing novel he’d read in which a character beset by a gastric upset had spent his infrequent moments of lucidity praying for death. Challis appreciated the man’s state of mind.

Which was when things began to go wrong.

The clouds were suddenly empurpled, rich and dark like overripe blueberries, and the tiny aircraft seemed in his mind’s eye to have become a shaft launched at the tightly stretched membrane covering the fruit. The darkness grew deeper in seconds, and then they had penetrated the membrane, been absorbed into the pulp of the dense clouds, and Challis realized that it was snow swirling from the cavernous blackness all around them. The gale increased at the same time and the metal of the fuselage and wings cried out, pulling at the rivets to get free and go with the wind. The other prisoner slumped sideways, dangling forward from the seat belt, his head blocking the narrow aisle. He hiccuped wetly and moaned as the bottom dropped away again and then slid steeply for several seconds: the descent ended abruptly as if ropes had yanked them to, and with a gagging sound the man emptied his stomach onto the floor. Challis looked away. The stench broke across him like a filthy wave, and he turned back to the window.

Without warning his forehead was slammed against the edging of the window as the plane skidded wildly to one side. Pain ricocheted down through his eyeballs. He was pitched hard against his seat belt, felt it dig into his belly. The guard in the seat across the aisle said, “Holy shit!” and with a cracking sound his seat belt gave way. He came flying sideways and slammed into Challis, pinning him against the curving bulkhead. Challis smelled the Tic Tacs on the man’s breath, feebly tried to push him away, thanking God the handcuffs had been taken off once they were in the air. For a moment they struggled to right themselves; then a swift bank to the left sent the guard sprawling backward into the aisle, where the edge of a seat back caught him in the ribs and knocked him to all fours.

The copilot burst into the passenger compartment, his face white, his eyes swinging wildly from the doped prisoner dribbling a fresh geyser of vomit to the groggy guard who was swearing and grabbing at his back and trying to avoid the mess in the aisle. “Everybody all right back here?”

“Sure, man,” Challis said, “this is great, just great, y’know?” He touched his forehead, saw blood on his fingers.

The guard looked up, pushing himself to his feet. “Hey, what the hell’s going on?” There was no time for an answer as the plane dropped abruptly again and the copilot was flung back through the doorway and out of sight into the cockpit. The sound of static erupted from the radio beyond the doorway, then stopped entirely. The door slammed shut, flew back open, and the copilot reappeared. “Hang on,” he yelled over the storm and the creaking metal and the groans of the sick and wounded. “Little trouble, nothing to worry about … wind’s got us off course.” He pointed at the sick prisoner. “He’s okay, is he?” The pilot’s voice came from the cockpit, loud, unintelligible, angry, and the pale copilot disappeared again. The guard lurched forward, tugging at the deadweight of the doped man, trying to get him back into his seat. Challis strained to see beyond the blowing snow, but it was useless. How far had they dropped? It was impossible to guess. He leaned back, feeling nauseated. He tried to swallow, but he was too dry: his throat opened, closed, and he began to cough.

“Goddamn toy airplane,” the guard growled, wedging himself back into the seat. “Can you believe it? They never should of let us off the ground in this thing … you all right? Your head?”

“Scared,” Challis said.

“Bet your ass, scared—”

The plane plummeted again, more severe than the drops that had come before. Challis’ breath left him; he looked out the window again and felt his eyes widen. They had fallen beneath the clouds and through the thick blowing snow which mixed with drifting bubbles of vapor hanging between the mountaintops, and he saw that they were flying in a valley with densely forested slopes on either side of them. His view wobbled as the winds whacked at the stubborn little plane. Off to the side he saw a blue-gray flatness of lake, murky behind the snowstorm. The thick fir trees seemed almost black, and he couldn’t see the tops of the mountains: just the blackish menace of the cliff walls. The engines throbbed and the plane struggled upward, desperately trying to vault whatever lay ahead. They slid off sideways and turned slowly, back toward the lake and crosswise against the wind, which was trapped and capricious in the valley. The guard stared out the window, knuckles whitened against the back of the seat ahead of him. Challis was frightened, couldn’t speak. A downdraft swept them at the lake, a great paw of wind swiping at them, and he closed his eyes again. When he opened them they seemed to be skimming across the water, fighting for altitude against the great hand pressing them down, pushing them into the lake. Whitecaps rose like a bed of sawblades, whirring.

Finally the pressure relaxed and they were pushed upward, flung ahead, speed increasing as they swung toward the hillside. Challis couldn’t estimate air speed, but the tops of the fir trees were flickering darkly thirty feet below as they grabbed for enough height to keep them alive. It took forever. Where, where was the top of the mountain? At the next glance the treetops seemed closer, and then he heard a cry from the cockpit: “We ain’t gonna make it, Charlie … we ain’t gonna make it.”

The last thing he saw before turning himself into a huddled ball wedged as tightly as possible between the seats was the guard’s gray face, turned toward him, mouth open in a soundless scream, eyes round like black pinpoints of terror.

The sound of the engines cut out.

The weight of the plane whisked them through the first few treetops, but in a matter of three or four seconds they began plowing into heavy branchwork and thicker trunks, and the wings flickered away like large silver birds and the fuselage tipped sideways, seemed to roll glidingly down the dense green boughs slowly, bouncing almost softly. Perhaps the feeling of gentleness was entirely in Challis’ head: the evidence, which included the decapitation of the leathery-skinned pilot by the sheared glass of the windshield, the breaking of the copilot’s neck, the fatal concussing of the guard, who bounced around the cabin’s interior like a puppet whose master was suffering a conniption fit, and the strangulation of the doped prisoner, who somehow slid down through his seat belt until it caught him under the chin and wrung his neck—the evidence gave no indication of gentleness.

When the rolling had stopped, Challis was cramped, upside down, and his own blood was running out of his nose. One leg had been bent unnaturally against the metal seat back, his trouser leg was torn, there was blood smeared across his kneecap, and the knuckles of both hands were scraped raw against metal which might otherwise have done even more damage to his head. Without really considering what had just happened, he used all his strength to lever himself out of the upside-down awkwardness. He saw the corpses of the guard and the other prisoner, smelled the flight fuel, which was undoubtedly leaking from ruptured lines, and reached out to steady himself. He missed whatever he had been reaching for and fell, lightheaded and in shock, forward onto what had been the ceiling of the cabin and was now the floor. Face to face with the strangled prisoner, whose tongue and eyeballs were ruptured and bleeding and protruding, he fainted.

2

GOLDIE ROTH HAD NEVER REALLY grown up, which was both good and bad. Good, because she remembered her childhood in remarkably acute detail, due in large part, Challis had always presumed, to the fact that she had never entirely left it. She remembered the parties at which her famous mother and powerful father had presided, with an eye and ear for literal recall which is common among the young. For instance, her grandfather, Solomon Roth, came more fully to life in her wicked little recollections than he ever quite seemed in real life; and she had a sure hand at literary caricature when it came to describing Solomon Roth’s famous employees.

When she finally put together a novel—which was widely held to be a public exorcising of her own private demons—it dealt with her coming of age at “Bella Donna,” the unfortunate name of the Bel Air mansion where they all lived and which was destroyed in a famous fire. It was not exactly a loving portrait of those years, and one rather good review was headlined, “Slow Poison by Tincture of Bella Donna.” It sold very well on the West Coast and appeared fleetingly on The New York Times’s best-seller list. The paperback edition eventually brought in nearly half a million dollars, and that was as far as her literary career went. But she was finally independent of the family—that is, her father, Aaron Roth—which was just as well, because her welcome in Bel Air, Holmby Hills, and the other prominent outposts of the film community, while never very warm, was effectively worn out. A lot of people were put out about what she had written, particularly those individuals making appearances in the novel’s pages under funny names but always with the right initials. Those most irritated were sometimes heard to gloat that Goldie never appeared at the Bel Air Country Club following the book’s publication, a minor triumph, however, since she had never appeared there before the book’s publication, either. But, still, she was a kind of outcast in her own country. She was no longer welcome at many private homes where she had once been a regular decoration, and for a time Seraglio, the new postfire mansion, was off-limits, as well. Solomon Roth had fought to rescind her banishment and, as always, had finally prevailed. But it had all been quite an ordeal, though vastly amusing to Goldie, who was in her mid-twenties and really didn’t give a shit.

So maybe it wasn’t good that she remembered everything. It depended on your point of view, which, Challis reasoned, made it just like everything else in life. From his point of view, at least when he first met her, it was good. Her unfettered lifestyle, her irreverence and wit—however childish and rude—at the expense of the show-business Establishment turned him on: he was introduced to her at Aaron and Kay’s annual Fourth of July holocaust shortly before the storm accompanying publication broke. He had won his Oscar a couple of years before for a film Aaron Roth had personally produced. When he tore himself away from his typewriter on the Fourth of July, he was working on an adaptation of Kipling’s The Light That Failed, for which Aaron and Maximus were paying him $250,000. It was never produced but he got into Goldie’s pants that first night, a turn of events which reinforced his basic belief that life is composed of a little of this and a little of that.

In addition to her natural sense of the absurd and a wonderfully dirty mouth, there was something else very good about Goldie—the way she looked. Challis was reminiscent in those days of a charming character from a George Axelrod comedy, vaguely mid-thirtyish, polished loafers and baggy cashmere sweaters, a tendency to drink too much and to be rather funny when he did; Goldie was in the full flush of her yellow-and-brown California-girl look then, and it hadn’t begun to go stale and come apart like aging hollandaise, the way that particularly delectable look so frequently, so horribly did. Seeing her for the first time, coming off the tennis court with her legs and arms and hair all honey-colored and her mouth jutting in a pout that was going to become awfully familiar, he was a dead duck. It was her manner, too: childish, spoiled, capricious, given an attractive texture by extremes of enthusiasm, high spirits, and anger. You didn’t fall in love with a creature like Goldie Roth. You wanted her as a trophy. There was one immutable truth about the prototype; it was the key to their allure, the cause of their undoing, and it never seemed to change: they liked being trophies. What they wanted was a man feeling lucky and proud to have somehow reached the pinnacle and gotten one of these rare and wonderful and doomed birds of passage for himself. But when the trophy developed a patch of tarnish here and some wine-and-cigarette breath there, when every six months or so brought a deposit of cellulite or some goddamn thing that required hugely expensive treatments by the latest European seer, when suddenly the trophy sat awhile on the shelf … why, then they wondered what it was about them that had become so unlovable. They forgot that they had defined the rules. The process never seemed to change. Challis had seen it happen a hundred times among people he knew. But watching this particular girl, with all the unimaginable tarnish and rust and nastiness just out of sight over the Beverly Hills, all Challis knew was that this blond, tan, tennis-playing trophy was exactly the trophy he’d been looking for.

Later, when they had been married awhile, he looked up from his typewriter and saw her lying naked in the sun on the deck of their beach house. She had white plastic globes where her eyes should have been and her belly kept tensing, then relaxing, tensing, relaxing. She was doing vaginal isometrics, which were all the rage that year, or so she informed him, and that was when it was getting on toward the bad part. Staying a child was becoming very hard work and the returns were diminishing. It wasn’t enough for her that she looked fine, tawny, lean: she knew by then that being a child of nature and impulse was wearisome, for Challis, for herself, for anybody who knew her. Yet she was lost looking for what role she was going to play next, now that she was over thirty.

Challis sipped his gin and tonic, listened to the crashing surf, squinted at the sunshine hitting the Malibu stretch of ocean and glaring nervously off a million waves and eddies. You could go blind watching the sunlight on the water, reflecting like an infinity of mirrors. Somebody famous ran past on the beach and waved at him, a sheepdog floundering happily behind, getting his feet wet in the surf. Goldie was listening to a rock radio station, her naked stomach and fingers jerking to the beat. At one time, a time he could barely remember, he’d have gone crazy at the sight of that expanse of brown flesh and curly hair. Beside her on the wooden deck a can of diet soda lay on its side where she’d knocked it over, the liquid staining the towel. He had a habit of looking at such scenes, any scenes really, and thinking about where the camera should be placed. Sometimes it made him angry because it removed him from reality; other times it kept him from cracking up.

Challis looked at his typewriter and the half-filled sheet of yellow foolscap. He looked at the television set, where the Dodgers were beating the Cardinals and Vin Scully was quoting Aeschylus and Euripides. His glass of gin and tonic—the sixth in this series, by actual count—was sweating like a fat umpire in the St. Louis sun. Goldie turned over, lay on her belly, spread her legs, and began flexing her ass. Challis frowned. He wondered who was sleeping with her these days. One of his friends? Maybe somebody right here in the Colony … it would be a nice humiliating touch at parties, and she rather liked humiliating touches. The thing was, did he care anymore? He didn’t think so. And he wouldn’t care until the last liquor store had sold its last bottle of gin, to paraphrase Margo Channing à la Joe Mankiewicz. And the next thing was, so far as he was concerned, what exactly did he care about anymore?

He stared at the Oscar, which was at the moment using its great marble base to hold down a ratty, slowly growing, marked-up stack of yellow paper.

“Well,” he said to the Oscar. “What?”

Oscar didn’t give a fig, as they used to say in olden days when Cornell Wilde and Tony Curtis and Donald Crisp had kept the surly barons in order.

Five years further on, the body of Goldie was at his feet. She wore a heavy sweater with a thick rolled turtleneck. No pants. A tank watch with the sapphire on the winding stem: was he crazy? Why else catalog these details while his wife cashed in her chips, bought the farm, shuffled off this—ah, let’s see, on the floor a Vuitton address book swept off the desk as she had clawed the air, grabbed at the last strands of life. All the Rodeo Drive loot scattered across the remains of poor, bitchy old Goldie. … The honey-streaked hair with undiminished thickness and sheen and heft: blood caked; her skull battered in, a fury of hatred and frustration; and the Oscar smeared with her blood and hair. … The statuette replaced on the desk, gazing down sightlessly at the murdered woman. A trophy used to kill another trophy.

Challis saw the flash of the Oscar reflecting the firelight, slicing through the air again and again as it must have done, Goldie going down, the base of the statuette smashing through the skull’s shell, spraying blood and the brains, pounding bits of bone into the slippery gray matter. He saw it, he heard the awful wet sound, and he woke up screaming. …

He opened his eyes, winced as a coughing fit racked his stiff, snow-covered body. Somehow he’d gotten out of the wreckage. Unlike the movies, there had been no fire, no exploding fuel tanks, despite the odor he recognized, and he was alive, in one piece. He lay in the mud and snow, the afternoon sky effectively blotted out by the dark trees and mist. He looked at his watch. Only an hour before, he’d been standing in the hangar, waiting.

Moving gingerly, he got up and walked back to the battered fuselage, which had acquired the sad look of a broken toy under a gigantic Christmas tree. He looked in past the broken glass of the windshield. Snow had blown in. The two bodies were white with it. He wasn’t quite sure of what he was seeing, then realized he was staring into the raw stump where the pilot’s head had been. Gagging, he staggered back, slipped in the icy mud, and fell down. He shook his head, clearing the image away. A clump of wet, heavy snow fell off the boughs above him, slid down, and glanced off his shoulder. He stood up, stumbled away into the trees.

He woke up again lying against a tree trunk. The cold was eating at him. He was so stiff that he assumed for a moment that he was freezing. His leg pained him, and his head, where it had struck the side window glass, was tender to the touch, throbbed mightily. The sky was finally visible, a dirty late-afternoon gray with snow blowing steadily from every direction at once. He wondered, almost objectively, how he was going to keep from freezing to death during the night. Leaning back against the tree, he swept his eyes out across the valley. The snow obscured details, but he saw far below him the ribbon of black road, which seemed flat from his perspective but which was in fact working its way up the mountainside. Nothing moved anywhere in his field of vision, nothing but the ceaseless shifting snow. He closed his eyes, but what he saw frightened him: the Oscar, gleaming brightly, flashing through the air, chopping again and again, growing a dripping coat of blood on its base. …

He came to again. Darkness was lowering across the valley like the final curtain on a bad play, and he knew he was going to die. He was alone on the side of the mountain and the snow was deepening all around him. When he opened his mouth to take a deep breath, he heard his snow-caked beard crack like breaking glass. His brain was still ticking over … Warren Beatty dying in the snow at the end of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Challis decided he was going to die wishing he’d written a movie that fine. Christ, he knew it was the end for sure—he heard voices. High, piping voices getting closer, the heavenly choir. So, this was it, they came piping and they led you away, just like Frank Capra had always sort of hinted they would. …

’Twas brillig and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe

All mimsy were the borogroves,

And the momeraths outgrabe …

The voices were coming closer. Challis smiled, felt his beard crack again. The subconscious was such a peculiar place, he mused quite calmly. He would never have guessed that his dying hallucination would have been of “Jabberwocky.” My God, his life could have flashed before his eyes, but instead, from a burying place deep in the heaped-over mounds of childhood, the Lewis Carroll poem had worked its way back to the surface. Then, much to his own surprise, he began to wonder, when would the processional of his life, the long march past, the final review, begin? Come to think of it, he’d always counted on that final view of who and what he’d been, the last chance to wave a cheery farewell to the young man, and before that the boy that he’d once been. As the sound of the voices came closer, he decided that the least he could do was stand up and meet his fate while foursquare, a beamish boy on his own two feet. Well, he could have used a drink, but … He slid up the tree trunk, the snow drifting off his shoulders. His eyelashes were stuck together with snow and his mustache was frozen solid like a brush made of ice, weighing ten pounds. Spooky business, dying, but his spirits had actually lightened a good deal. He was beginning to feel rather silly. And he began walking toward the piping, chanting voices. Which was when he stepped over the edge of a small cliff and tumbled through the bracken and snow and brambles onto a frozen, muddy pathway edging narrowly along the mountainside.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The Jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

By God, they were getting closer still. He peered out from inside his head, through the bars of his eyelashes. He rubbed at the snot dripping from his nose, laughed, and felt his beard crack again. Ice cut into his face, and he stopped laughing. He stood up slowly, feeling a sharp pain in his side. His leg hurt and his head hurt. As long as he had the symptoms, he wished he were drunk. When was all the hurting going to stop?

Beware the Jubjub bird and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!

He took a few faltering steps and caught his breath.

Good Lord, but they were small!

Somehow—aside from all that dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin bullshit—he’d always assumed that angels were, well, big. Majestic, magnificent, terrific wingspread and all … of course, Capra had seen them as sort of cuddly old men, chummy and good-natured and hesitant. Anyway, it didn’t matter, because that had been the movies and this was something else and he’d have to break that habit—this was real life, dying and angel visitation, hallucinatory or not. But they were so small, these funny looking little creatures, brightly colored, puffy parkas where there should have been those long creamy robes, and they weren’t flying or floating … they were staggering along and looking down at the path, and the lead angel couldn’t have been more than four feet high!

Challis drew himself up to his full six feet and began to say something. “Hey there!”

The first angel’s eyes widened. The mouth fell open. Snow blew thickly between Challis and the angel.

“Bandersnatch!” the angel shrieked. “The Bandersnatch!” Then he turned tail and ran smack into the following angels.

Challis scowled and fell face forward in the mud and snow, dead to the world and feeling no pain.

3

CHALLIS HAD TAKEN A SOMEWHAT earlier flight than he’d planned. Being summoned to an Australian location to doctor somebody else’s screenplay had taken its toll both physically and mentally. For a week he’d tried to put some life into the stoic, stalwart characters drawn from a wooden best-selling novel: he’d given them verbal habits, physical twitches, taken a tuck here and there, restructured the second half of the story. He turned a solemn, boring sermon into a rather base caricature and picked up fifty thousand in the process. Somebody from the studio had suggested that he might want screen credit. A bad joke? No, the man had been well-intentioned, and Challis had politely declined. The director, a mature hell-raiser of seventy, had insisted on getting drunk every night in Challis’ hotel room. “Challis,” he kept saying, “they don’t understand me, they never have. First, I was, I still am, a writer … don’t ask me how I got into the goddamn director’s chair—I don’t know. Any asshole from a sheep station in the outback can direct a picture. But they’ve forgotten I’m a writer. Now, let me tell you how this piece of shit should play, never forgetting we’ve got a couple of talking bogies for actors.” The week had taken a considerable toll, all right, and Challis had stopped off in Fiji for a couple of days to dry out. But he’d wanted to get home. He’d wanted to see Goldie, and he’d wanted to be sober.

So he’d gotten in earlier than planned; the standard gold 450SL had started after the week’s rest, and he headed up the Pacific Coast Highway from LAX with the morning sun glowing brightly behind the fog crouching over the city. The ocean was calm and peaceful and white sails slid across the surface like enormous shark’s fins. What traffic there was as he reached Malibu was coming the other way, and he drove fast with the top down, letting the moist breeze wake him up. He turned left and went through the Colony’s gates. It was a beautiful morning, clean and wet and the sun glowing brighter every minute. Christmas was only a week away, and he’d survived a week with the temperature hitting 120 every day and he was glad to be home.

He was surprised to smell coffee in the kitchen. The container had dripped halfway full. A radio was playing softly somewhere. He heard the surf in the particular way that meant the sliding glass door onto the long deck was open. There was wet sand on the kitchen floor.

Still carrying his bag, he walked into the living room and stood quietly by the desk that looked out at the water. A fire had burned down in the grate and the wind coming up off the beach fluttered papers on the desk. It was cool, dim, fresh in the room.

Goldie was screwing some guy on the rug. They were naked and there was wet sand ground into the rug, and her hair was wet. As far as Challis knew, this was the first time, but then, it would be, wouldn’t it? He felt the sickness in his stomach and went back into the kitchen. They hadn’t noticed him. He mechanically got a cup and poured himself coffee, put cream in it, added brown-sugar crystals because in California everybody said brown-sugar crystals wouldn’t give you cancer and if you couldn’t believe everybody, who the hell could you believe? With his bag in one hand, the hot coffee in the other, he went back to the living room.

Goldie’s eyes were tightly closed and her jaw was clenched and she was shaking. They were just getting there, and the conversation was about par for the particular course they were playing. In times of crisis, Challis habitually fell back on composing dialogue in his mind and then saying it, thereby removing himself slightly from the unpleasant reality of the moment. He put the suitcase down softly, walked across the room, stood looking down at them.

“When you two are done,” he said, “I’d like just a moment of your time.”

The effect was all that he could have hoped for. The sexual act, the ardor itself, was dampened with a pathetic suddenness. He looked past the steaming coffee into four terrified glazed eyes and two flushed faces. The scene became one from a very amateurish porno movie or one’s worst private nightmares. Naked bodies were rolling in all directions, limbs flailing, voices crying out. He was surprised that they didn’t handle it with rather more aplomb. In his gut, he probably felt a good deal worse than they did. But, of course, he made his living writing words for people to say in equally unlikely and melodramatic situations. He watched them struggling to their feet. There were no robes or shirts or towels in the room. In a movie the scene might just conceivably have been played for laughs.

“Look at the bright side,” he said. “I’m not carrying a gun.”

“Oh, shit!” the man said. His chest was hairless, and sprinkled with red splotches, decorated with the standard terrace of awful gold chains. He looked terribly ordinary: middle-aged, tanned down to his neck, gray hair, splay-footed. Goldie didn’t look so hot either. Her mouth looked sort of raw and smudged.

Challis walked past them and went out on the deck. He sipped the coffee, scratched his beard, leaned on the railing looking out at the water. What in the world were his next lines? He couldn’t seem to get a grip on the scene, and he loathed the idea of crying, which was what he felt like doing. Goldie had frequently accused him of being buttoned-up, buttoned-down, but never unbuttoned. Inhibitions were his “bag,” as she was fond of saying; he was afraid of his emotions. He blinked back the tears and waited while he heard the sounds of the unidentified chap packing it up. Eventually he heard Goldie’s voice: “Toby …” He turned around. She was standing in the doorway, leaning against the rough wood of the siding. She wore Levi’s and a sweater, and her face, expressionless, was impossible to read.

“Toby,” she said with surprising softness, “don’t be sorry you came home too soon.” The surf rushed in his ears. “This was bound to happen … it’s a miracle it hasn’t happened before. Oh, Toby, don’t look like such an idiot. You’re so dense, so stupid, so wrapped up in that goddamn typewriter …” She threw her head, the hair clinging wetly. She grabbed a towel from the back of a chair and began angrily drying the darkly streaked hair. “This jerk you saw,” she called, walking away, “just the latest in a long line, Toby.”

He followed her into the kitchen. She was pouring coffee.

“Don’t take it personally, okay?” She grinned sourly at him.

He swiped at the coffee mug, watched the hot liquid spray upward in a wave, staining the camel-hair sweater. He heard her shriek as the coffee burned through to her big golden breasts. The shrieking stopped when the flat of his right hand connected with the side of her face. She fell forward, caught herself against the sink. She blinked at him. He realized with considerable satisfaction that she was terribly frightened. There was blood in the corner of her mouth. He felt his adrenaline rushing, his senses bared. The smell of coffee was overwhelming.

“Don’t take it personally,” he said. “Okay?”

It must have been the smell of the coffee that brought on the memory of that remarkable morning at Malibu. When he opened his eyes, the memory of Goldie’s terrified eyes and her cheek flaring red as she fell sideways was gone, but the smell of the strong coffee remained, assailed him, cleared his head. He’d forgotten that he was supposed to be dead. So far as he could tell at first glance, he was at the center of a semicircle of squatting fellow mortals. Small fellow mortals.

Somewhere a disc jockey was babbling.

A morning disc jockey. Challis recognized the voice. He squinted at the morning’s bright grayness. Clouds hung low in the valley. He was sitting in a shallow cave, a depression cupped out of the rocky hillside, and it was morning and he wasn’t quite dead. He was beginning to get the picture.

“Bandersnatch!” cried a high, squeaky voice. “He moved … look, he moved. Ralph, come here, Bandersnatch just moved.”

“Relax,” Challis croaked. “Don’t talk so loud, little boy.”

A bulky figure appeared in the corner of Challis’ vision, clumped in out of the blowing cold. He was as wide as he was tall and looked to be about thirteen. He paused, looked down at the small blond boy whose piercing cry had just stopped rocketing off the stony, icy walls. “Stevie, for God’s sake, be quiet. You’ll start an avalanche. Don’t you know nothin’?”

“No, Ralph, I don’t,” Stevie replied solemnly.

“God, you can say that again,” Ralph muttered. He looked down at Challis. His face was swarthy, his hair thick and black, his eyes a lustrous dark brown. He wore a blue down-filled jacket which made him look like a large beach ball with arms and legs. “You awake? You feel all right?” Ralph’s eyelid jumped, a tic.

“Coffee?” Challis tried to swallow. He didn’t understand what was going on, but coffee would probably help.

There was a fire crackling nearby, on the ground beside it a camper’s collapsible pan with a longish handle. Ralph poured coffee powder into a tin telescoping cup, heated the snow in the pan over the fire, and made coffee. A heavy-looking backpack leaned against the wall of the cave. Ralph handed over the cup and watched while Challis sipped. Six other boys, ranging in age from maybe ten to twelve, watched quietly. One was cross-eyed; another’s mouth hung slightly ajar, a trail of saliva working its way down his chin. The tin cup was hot as hell. Challis grinned at them over the cup’s rim.

“That’s good,” he said. “Thanks … ah, what the hell is going on? What happened to last night? Who are you guys, anyway?”

All the faces turned toward Ralph, who was busy tearing pictures of naked girls out of a Penthouse and putting them on the fire. He scooped another hand full of snow from the cave’s lip, dropped it into the pan, swilled it around over the fire.

“We are campers,” Ralph said, smiling faintly. He put coffee powder in another cup. The other campers were munching candy bars. Ralph reached into his backpack, withdrew a Mars bar, and handed it to Challis. “Our leader wandered away and we couldn’t find him, so now we’re on our own … it’s no big deal because Ralph Halliday is always prepared.” He brewed his own cup of coffee and sat down across from Challis. Music played on the radio, a small Sony propped against the backpack. “That’s who we are, and I know who you are.” His eyes caught Challis’ for a second, and the faint smile reappeared. His eyelid began to dance nervously. He looked away.

“You’re Bandersnatch,” one of the smaller boys said.

“Frumious Bandersnatch,” another said, slurring the words. There was something off-center in the scene, but Challis couldn’t pin it down.

“Listen, you guys,” Ralph said calmly, as if lecturing a group of kindergarten children. “Go police the area. We need twigs and sticks for the fire. And snow … here, take the pan, collect snow in it. And put your candy wrappers in your pocket. No littering, or I’ll bury you at the back of this cave. You got that? Okay, get going.” He waited, taking little swallows of coffee, while the boys jumbled quietly out into the cold. Ralph was the top kick, and the rest of the kids acted like boot-camp recruits. When he and Challis were alone, he waved some smoke away and said, “You want a cigar?” He reached for the backpack. “My dad smuggles these things in from Cuba—”

Challis began to chortle, felt the roar of laughter growing. He remembered suddenly that he’d believed at first that they were angels. And now he’d met them and he still didn’t know what they were, but, my God, there was coffee and a warm fire and Penthouse and candy bars, and now, beyond all the boundaries of imagination, a Cuban cigar. Maybe he was dead. Maybe heaven was just a bit more primitive than he’d expected.

“We saw the plane go down, see? So we were heading that way, thinking somebody might’ve got out, see? Some of my men, well, you seen ’em—little gimpy there, some of ’em, right? So I keep what passes for their minds—just a joke, heh, heh—occupied with a little singing, a little … well, you know, what they say. A little laugh, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants … just a joke, heh, heh.”

Ralph got a cigar for himself, lit it, and looked at it appreciatively. “Yeah, I been smoking these things since I was eleven. I’m thirteen and a half now, see?”

“There’s something funny here …”

Ralph smiled slowly.

“I know,” Challis said. “You’re doing Eddie Robinson—”

Key Largo,” Ralph said, nodding. “Been working on it since I was ten. I used to do Benny and Cagney, and my Kirk Douglas wasn’t bad, ’cause he’s got a kind of high voice. That’s why my Peck is so bad … you gotta get the deep voice. Anyway, my Robinson is so good it’s all I do anymore.”

“How’s your Ralph Halliday?”

“Very funny. I haven’t done Ralph Halliday in a long time, see? I’ve forgotten how. Nobody any good does Ralph Halliday … it’s like Benjamin Franklin, nobody does him. Ralph Halliday! A nothing, a kid, and I don’t do kids.” He blew an arrow of smoke toward the entrance to the cave where the brightness had already given way to dark clouds and the beginnings of either snow or sleet.

In the silence, with only the wind whirring outside, they heard the eight o’clock newscast from Los Angeles.

“And the record rainstorms show no signs of lessening in the next few days, which is bad news for all you residents of Malibu and the canyons all the way from Bel Air and Beverly Glen to Laurel. Foothill Drive is blocked with mud as of the moment, and Pacific Coast Highway, opened at noon yesterday, is already blocked again with overnight mudslides.

“In the mountains the rain has turned to snow again, and in the Arrowhead-Puma Point area we’ve got a couple of human-interest stories in the news this morning. Rick Wallace was on his way up the mountain last night but didn’t make it. The roads are completely snow-blocked, not open to any traffic, so all we can tell you is that both the plane carrying convicted wife-killer Toby Challis and the camping party of retarded children from St. Christopher’s School are up on the mountain and out of contact with the rest of the world. The small aircraft carrying Challis and four other passengers and crew radioed that it was going down in the storm yesterday afternoon, and nothing has been heard since … the little lost campers have not been heard from since the day before yesterday, when they left Arrowhead on an overnight trip with a counselor from the school.

“On the Hollywood scene, the latest on the David Begelman affair, which has got a lot of folks white-knuckling it in Bel Air and at the Polo Lounge—”

Ralph flipped the radio off.

“Little lost campers!” He snorted. “Makes me wanna puke.” He glared at the ash on his cigar. Challis munched thoughtfully on his Mars bar, wondering where the conversation was about to go. His head was clearing and he was beginning to remember the reality of his situation. The radio announcer had it right on the button: he was convicted wife-killer Toby Challis, and from out of nowhere, in the most unexpected way possible, he had become a free man. But the brand of freedom was … well, it reminded him of Dudley Moore getting his wishes realized in Bedazzled: the letter of the wish was granted but not the spirit. Stuck on a mountainside in a snowstorm with a bunch of retarded kids and the reincarnation of Edward G. Robinson. On the other hand, he could be sitting in the remains of the airplane with his head on the seat behind him.

But what was he going to do now?

Wait to be found? Try to go for help? Leave the kids? Take them with him if he left?

Or try—he had no idea how—to escape?

The thought of escape tantalized him. He felt a rush of life: his senses seemed to sharpen.

Ralph made no further comment about the radio report.

“You wanta stand up? Move around. …”

Challis nodded, reached for Ralph’s shoulder, and slowly got to his feet. His head brushed the roof. Ice grew like moss, smelled cold. For an instant his head swam, his vision became pinpoints of light at the distant ends of twin dark tunnels. He steadied himself against Ralph’s stocky frame, waited for everything to come back. He was stiff, but not as bad as he thought he’d be: the warmth of the campfire must have taken the chill out of his bones.

“You okay?”

Challis nodded. “Let’s go outside.”

They met the returning twig party, each of the boys carrying clumps of sticks and leaves. Ralph told them to fuel the fire and stay inside the cave, get warm, and don’t fight. His authority was absolute. Together, going slowly on the slippery snow and ice, Challis and Ralph set off. The snow was thicker than Challis remembered yesterday’s had been; stinging in a strong, gusty wind, and colder, too. The trees looked black, dark; foggy clouds dipped down into the valley, giving them a sense of eerie isolation. It was utterly quiet but for the wind and the snow pattering all around them, their breathing and footsteps. The small sounds which accentuate the quiet. …

They found the footpath where they’d encountered one another. Five minutes farther on, around the bend, they stopped. The wind pushed a bank of gray vapor away from the mountainside, and far below them they saw the rope of blacktopped road snaking its way painfully, slowly upward. From above, it looked flat and seemed almost to be alive, squirming as snow skittered across it.

“Look,” Ralph said, pointing. “You see that? There, see?”

“Christ. …”

Two vehicles were edging along at the lead end of the black road. Ahead of them there was no road.

“Snowplow,” Ralph said. “They’ve both got red lights on top.”

“Can you see that?”

“I got good eyes, see. Snowplow and a cop car, maybe … or an ambulance. They’re looking for us, see, all of us.”

“It’s pretty slow going,” Challis said. “It’ll take them a couple hours to get up this high.”

“I don’t know. Looks like they’re making pretty good time to me.” It was true: already the black ribbon had taken the two vehicles out of sight behind an outgrowth of treetops.

“You’re right,” Challis said. He licked snow from his mustache, wiped caked snow from his eyebrows. “An hour at the most.” He looked around him, analyzing the topography. He had to figure out a way to stay free. He saw an outcropping of rock, ice, and snow twenty feet above them. It reminded him of a scene he’d once written. “Come on, Ralph, grab the other end of this log. …”

They hauled, tugged, and yanked the fifteen-foot length of rough, barky wood up onto the ledge. Panting hard, Challis inspected the boulder, the accompanying smaller rocks, the few small trees attached to the basic mass, and the covering of ice and snow. He kicked at the perimeters, wedging his boot into a moist, unfrozen opening between the rim of the rock and the earth. He pushed his foot in as far as his ankle allowed. He hoped it was a deep hole burrowed by an animal.

“This is all from a movie I once wrote,” he said, regarding the scene and getting his breath. “Never got produced, of course, but I stole it from a hundred other movies anyway. The pioneer family, pursued by I forget who, decide to make their stand up on a mountainside. Dad—say, Jimmy Stewart—has been shot in the leg and can’t really do anything … but he can tell the others, the sons and daughters and the perky little wife, she was supposed to be Debbie Reynolds, as I recall—anyway, Jimmy lies there holding his bloodstained leg and explains the use of leverage, how even weak human beings can move mountains if they’ve only a mind to. Well, you get the idea.”

“So we’re gonna move the mountain. …”

“Well, just a smidgen of it. …”

“And block the road!” Ralph’s dark eyes flashed at the prospect.

They fitted the log into the hole, pushing it until it stuck firmly, nestled under the boulder. The log projected back at a considerable angle. Challis could get a grip around it about five feet from the end. “This may,” he said, “take a little time.” He began to hoist himself up, bringing his full weight to bear on the log. He bounced. At first he thought that nothing was happening, merely a nasty twanging along the length of the wood, like a bat cracking in your hand against a heavy fastball. Ralph watched for a moment, then bounded off, came back with a short, thick stick, and inserted it five feet from the log and began digging at the ice and snow bonding the boulder to the mountainside. Challis kept bouncing. Ralph moved along, digging, scraping. After ten minutes they were sweating, but Challis thought he’d felt a bit of give.

Below them the snowplow had pushed on almost out of sight, unreeling the road behind it like a slug might leave a wet trail.

“Let’s try again,” Ralph said. He grabbed his lever and with a stone jammed it into what seemed a promising spot. Challis shifted the log. The angle had declined somewhat, so he could apply his weight nearer the end. With the first mighty surge, he felt more give, heard what must have been the tearing away of roots and mud and ice. Again he leaped, pulling down, and again, and again. When it finally came loose, it hung, tottering for a moment: they rushed forward, stepping half into the crater from which it had been dislodged, and pushed, their shoulders against the dirt and mud, and then it went, crashing through the snow, taking trees with it, rolling slowly, implacably, like a medieval juggernaut, smashing and grinding, growing larger gradually.

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