A foggy vision of her pretty teenage face from forty years ago …
Leah saying goodbye to him on the Kirtland Air Force Base tarmac adjacent to the Albuquerque Sunport, the shrill whine of an Army transport plane firing up its engines.
As the hot desert wind tussled with her honey-blonde hair, Leah said, “Promise me, Creed Tolliver, you’ll get your butt back here when your tour’s over.”
A last kiss. “I promise,” he said.
Leah plummeting to her death …
Creed gasped, even though this image of her wasn’t any more real than the one of her teenage face … because Leah’s body had been removed from below the climbing cliff three days before he’d arrived back in New Mexico.
Beads of perspiration on his brow, heart hammering, eyes stinging; after a few moments he took a deep breath and shrugged—lopsidedly, because he only had one arm—thinking: tears won’t help the dead.
The two-hundred-foot limestone cliff loomed above, darkened in long streaks on its pale face by a recent mountain shower. A single rope hung from the rim about halfway down, the frayed end languidly swinging in the cooling breeze.
Creed felt a phantom jerk of his missing arm, as though reaching up for the end of the rope, fifty feet in the air—feeling helpless, he angrily kicked at the severed section of rope haphazardly coiled on the mound of loose rocks where he was standing.
“They shouldn’t have tried a descent on the north face of the cliff,” Creed said as he sidled off the pile of broken rock, pieces clattering down behind him.
Willis said, “Those sharp outcroppings can cut through rope like a knife.”
Creed looked at his old friend. Age had not been kind to Sam Willis, nor had his time in Afghanistan; he looked quite different from when he and Creed were cocky high school jocks, high on delusions of invincibility, signing up after graduation to kick ass and take names in an even dustier part of the world than New Mexico.
“You forget to duck?” Creed asked, nodding at the tangle of wormy scars on the left side of his old friend’s face—shiny bare skin where a left eyebrow had been.
Willis quietly replied, “Extraction of wounded from those dry ass foothills northwest of Kabul. You know where I mean?”
Creed nodded. “Hills like white elephants,” he said, thinking of a Hemingway story he’d liked. Bunking in motels and barracks all over the world gave him plenty of down time to read over the years—everything from Spillane to Sartre.
Willis gazed down the trail toward the muddy Rio Grande, just a narrow waterway there in the mountains. “Rotor got shot to shit. My copilot, a CIA observer and two of the wounded died when we crashed … I got these scratches and a leg fracture.”
Scratches? His face was a roadmap to hell.
“They take you to Landstuhl?” Creed asked in an effort at conversation, even though he wasn’t good at it and was preoccupied with Leah’s death.
His old friend nodded, no doubt having the kind of recollection men usually visit only after dark, often drunk. The kind of memories a lot of vets have, including him: being wounded, sometimes bad, always painful. So, when a soldier reminisces about battles he’s survived you don’t interrupt, not even with important questions regarding the only woman you’ve ever loved.
Willis finally sighed, glanced around as though getting his bearings, then made a sweeping gesture. “Seen enough?”
Creed squinted. “What happened to her husband’s rope; did it break at the same time as Leah’s?” Odds of that happening were zero.
The simple inquiry seemed to stump Willis and he looked up the cliff face. “Well, uh, Blaylock let go of his rope when Leah fell, but too high up, got banged up on these rocks.”
“Okay, but why isn’t it hanging down next to Leah’s broken rope?”
Willis shrugged. “Somebody must’ve pulled it up to the rim, maybe swiped it. Because it’s not up there, we checked.”
In the depths of Creed’s brain a primal function—Creed thought of it as a wise old lizard—a function that’d provided warnings in more situations of danger than he could remember—opened its reptilian eyes and stared at Sheriff Willis.