Dr. Melville handed me the envelope in my bedroom but the letter was sealed up tight and scotch-taped over and I felt like I just didn’t have the strength. The words were typed up but it had no signature. I handed it back to Dr. Melville.
“He asked me to give it to you if anything happened.”
“Read it out loud,” I said.
“I can do that.” Dr. Melville cracked the paper open at arm’s-length, like an official proclamation. “‘Bagdikian,’ it says. ‘If you’re reading this it’s probably not so good for me but maybe not so bad for you. I know where she is but that makes it sound much too easy. It’s a place called Bighorn Ranch and it’s in the mountains about a half-hour outside of Telluride. Most of the guests get in there by helicopter. Everybody there is into guns and there’s some other weird anti-terrorist shit that’s going on there that I’m still running down. But if you’re reading this, it means I wasn’t able to put together all the pieces for you.’”
I was sitting up in bed but as Dr. Melville got close to the end I began to feel like I was losing the sensations in my body all the way to my toes.
“‘Sorry, brother. Don’t trust anybody you didn’t know before you got here. Give Ajax a hug for me, but don’t put the weight of the world on your shoulders. Sayonara, Skip Taylor.’”
Ozzie threw that morning’s Aspen Free Press on the bed. The headline splattered across the whole top of the front page read: “Free Press Reporter Slain.”
“Professional job,” Ozzie said. “Piano wire around the neck on the bike path. Dusk. Nobody around to see it. Clean, too. They found him in the National Forest. Something had been gnawing on him.”
I wanted to puke and I found the puke bowl just in time.
“Jesus, man,” Dr. Melville said.
I didn’t know if Skip Taylor had a wife or children but I knew he had people who cared about him. And now he was gone, Skip Taylor and Sam Albright and maybe Amanda Madison were all going, going – or gone. And all because I could not let the O’Kells go.
Now I knew I was going to hell.
If I dropped the case to save her, Amanda Madison would be pissed even though she would do the same for me. Her life or my life were not worth an abstract principle, and yet neither one of us would be able to resist the power of that abstraction. And there was no time left for abstractions.
“Big Horn Ranch.” Dr. Melville took the letter and put it in his pocket. “I’ve heard of it. And I’ve got all the firepower you need. As long as I go with you.”
“The situation requires further assessment,” Ozzie said.
“Fine,” Dr. Melville said as he was leaving. “When you’re ready, I’m ready to go kick some O’Kell ass.”
McGuff made sure the door was closed behind him. Then he looked at me.
“What’s the matter?” I said to McGuff.
“Shit detector’s going off.”
“Ditto,” Ozzie said.
“Why?” I said.
“Why should that dirtbag help us?” McGuff said. “It makes no sense.”
“The man is out of tune,” Ozzie said. “Dissonant.”
“True,” I said. “But perhaps he can be of use to us.”
“You hear that in a movie?” Ozzie said.
“There’s not going to be any ransom note,” I said.
We were sitting in Zele because I had managed by force of will to walk the block and a half from my apartment on Main Street to Zele on Hopkins. McGuff and Ozzie and Katherine Hallaby and I were sitting out front because Aspen in the first week of February was warm and toasty as spring thanks to global warming or the gods of winter. The reporters and satellite trucks were still waiting out front while we slipped out back. From where I was sipping on my black coffee I could see the skiers and boarders SSSSSSSSSing their way down Ajax to the gondola and The Little Nell, the little wisps of snow left behind them visible and magical even this far away.
The sun felt good. That was the only thing that felt good. I wasn’t feeling anything like myself yet, though I was starting to have an idea what it might feel like to be me. But there was no joy in Mudville.
“And there’s not going to be any ransom, either. The last thing the O’Kells need is money. They’re not going to kill her because they need her alive. And they’ve got all the time in the world.”
“So what’s the endgame?” Katherine Hallaby said.
“I drop the case,” I said, “and they drop off Amanda Madison at our doorstep. That’s the deal. They don’t even have to say a word.”
“How do you know they’ll keep their word?” Katherine Hallaby said.
“How do they know you’ll keep yours?” McGuff said.
“Scout’s honor?” I said.
“It’s too easy,” McGuff said. “A nice letter from a dead reporter that wraps the whole thing in a nice package with balloons.”
Katherine Hallaby stood up and pulled on her helmet with the goggles and her Burton jacket with the built-in iPod. She plugged in the white iPod earplugs and stuck them in her ears. With the big snowboarding boots and oversized pants she looked like she could barely walk back to the gondola. But Katherine Hallaby was styling, snowboard-style.
“One way or the other,” she said. “We have to decide what to do. You have to decide.”
Ozzie, McGuff, and I watched her walk toward the mountain. We were thinking as hard as we could.