A little slow off the mark with this… call it the end of the year blues. Mostly I like to have a Cole Wright short story up free to read in the first week of the month when a Cole Wright novel is coming out. This time, I missed that by a wide margin – Zero Kills, book 6 in the series, has already been out for a few days now.
The idea with a free story on the website here is to promote the upcoming title and the series as a whole. Since I’m kind of goofy with that whole marketing thing, sometimes pieces fall by the wayside. Social media? Advertising? Up to date website? Email list? What’s all that?
“A Steep Climb” as it turns out, was actually the first Cole Wright short story I wrote. When I was getting a feel for the character. It was fun coming back to it at this point (and making a couple of important changes) and cool to let it out into the world. I’ll leave it free here for a week or two. Maybe longer.
More Cole Wright news soon – an update on Zero Kills (you know, promotion), a little news on book 7, which has been drafted and as such is in the machine to get up to scratch to be publishable, and on a collection of all the Cole Wright short stories so far, including the novella.
A Steep Climb will also be out soon as an ebook and in paperback – priced as usual at $2.99 and around $5.99.
Enough of my waffling on – here’s the story.
A Steep Climb – blurb
Hitching a ride, Cole Wright finds himself listening to tall tales. He meets some remarkable people on the road.
When the driver suggests a detour to a beautiful overlook, they find more than they expect. People dressed and ready for a ball.
But they have other things on their mind.
Cover illustration by Dek257 | Dreamstime
A Steep Climb
Delle Brodie climbed the steep face of the grassy slope, nursing her twisted ankle, watching the rage of angry waves below.
There were rocks there, at the base. Old granite or basalt or something. The kind of rock that sat implacable against the ocean’s onslaught for millions of years. Or against the impact of a boat’s hull.
Above the rock, the grassy slope was something she had to cling to. Maybe mountain goats or bighorn sheep could traverse it easily, but for a reasonably fit woman like herself, it was still a struggle.
The grass was crisp and dry. The blades crackled underfoot and in her hands as she grasped at them. Some came away in her fingers. Hopefully the root mass was tougher. Otherwise, her urgent traverse might dislodge something and send a whole volume of it down into the Pacific. Her with it.
Back down with the debris of Hibiscus, her boat.
Insects buzzed around. Hornets, maybe, or bees. Despite the dryness of the landscape, there were still weedy flowers around. The smell was a heady mix of dusty earth, pine and a mess of floral scents.
If you could bottle it, you’d make a killing selling it at state fairs.
The sun beat down on Delle. Late September in Oregon you’d think it would be more temperate. There had been some fires a year or two back, racing up through parts of this countryside. Relentless and without mercy. Times were sure getting hotter.
Still, at least the sun would be setting soon. It might have been six PM already. Maybe later. On the boat, time hadn’t seemed to matter so much.
Somewhere south of Portland, north of Crater Lake National Park, one of her favorite places. Amazing that a lake could be so deep–deepest in the country–but only be accessible at the top of a mountain. Stunning, summer or winter.
It would be a whole lot better there right now, than here.
She was wearing running gear, which was a good thing. Tights, Nikes, a wicking, long-sleeved Ladbrook top. Black with bright colors–pinky-crimson on the upper half of the top, and the same color highlights along the leggings.
Better than if she was in jeans, sandals and some old baggy sweater.
She was in good shape, for her age. Pushing forty. She ran five miles a day, put in a couple of regular weekly sessions at Stone’s Gym in Tacoma hefting weights and pulling the oars on a rowing machine.
Delle stopped and took a breath. The slope had to be sixty degrees. Math had never been her strong suit. Ask her to pick the chords in a song and she could do that easy. Listen to something once, then play it on the piano no problem.
But angles and square roots and even multiplication baffled her.
Honey, her mother had said right through school, Music is just math.
Well, she got that. All the notes relate, one to the other. That was easy. But when you had to look up the cosine of an angle to figure out how long the side of a triangle was, well, that just lost her.
And why was she thinking about that now?
As if poor math skills were something to worry about when her boat was wrecked, she was stuck here scrambling up some wasteland into who knew where?
Another glance down–didn’t they say don’t look down?–and she could see that she was actually making progress.
She didn’t remember scaling the rocks. Just being thrown into the water, then she was here on the slope. Some survival instinct taking over. The conscious, memory-forming part of her brain shoved aside as something took over to get her away from those waves and out of the water.
A plunge through the water–she was still wet–and a scramble up the rock face. She had some cuts on her fingers and the left knee of her leggings was torn, the skin beneath scraped.
She stopped for another breath. Impossible to tell how far the slope reached. It curved back away from her.
It was tiring. And already she’d had to deal with the broken steering on the boat.
Hibiscus was a forty-foot fiberglass cutter. At least, she had been. Now she was just jetsam, with the mast bobbing in the waves, the keel sitting at the bottom of this little cove.
Her own fault, really. It was her father who’d been the sailing enthusiast. He’d gifted her the boat in his will.
He’d tried to share a lot of his enthusiams with her. Taking her to Jayhawks games, teaching her to shoot at the local range, watching bad fifties science fiction movies. Some of them were really terrible.
Maybe it was some desire to honor his name, to take the boat out. Maybe it was something clouding her judgement.
She’d been out on the boat plenty of times with him, from when she was maybe ten and he’d come into the money to purchase it.
He made it look easy. Adjust the sheets, work the tiller, change the sail configuration.
The last five years it had sat almost idle–just occasional rentals that helped pay the hospital bills–while he made noises about beating his cancer. Right up until the last day.
I’ll lick it, you hear me? I will.
Delle climbed on. Maybe it wasn’t too much farther. And the slope definitely seemed to be growing less steep. Something darted away through the grass to her right. Maybe a mouse. Maybe a small snake.
She should know more about the area’s wildlife, really.
The slope evened out. The grass was more vibrant and strong. Soon the slope was shallow enough that she could stand and walk upright.
The tips of trees showed farther up. Some pieces of litter were caught in the grass in places. Burger wrappers, plastic bottles.
The slope changed not far ahead. An edge to it. The grass scruffier, a low fence made from fat round pieces of wood. When she reached it though, the fence was higher than it had seemed. More like three feet high, with wire mesh between the posts.
Beyond, there was a gravel area, with tall pines behind. The scent of them was strong.
A black Cadillac was parked in the middle of the gravel area.
With a man standing at the open driver’s door. Just watching her.
Cole Wright sat in the passenger seat of the rickety old Ford, listening to the driver talk about his time in the marines. Nice guy, though perhaps getting on a bit to still be driving, especially at the speeds he was doing. Staying within the posted limit, but the twists and turns didn’t lend themselves to the aggressive mode at all.
“Last posting was Desert Shield,” he told Wright, heading off into a long story about fixing the blades on helicopters in the baking heat and driving, sandy wind.
The car popped and purred. Sometimes driving smoothly, sometimes seeming to struggle. It had once been dark blue, but all the luster had gone out of its paneling and trim. The blue seemed hidden under decades of patina. Wright’s window was jammed about an inch from closed.
The guy had picked him up outside of a diner near a freeway spur. Wright had been thinking about finding a place for the night, though there hadn’t been much at the little interchange. A gas station, the diner, a few houses. A motel that was so decrepit that it looked abandoned. A sign out front boasted that they had Color TV!, though all the color had washed out of that too.
Easy enough to try his luck a ways up the road.
Days like this could go either way. Sleeping in a bus shelter, or getting invited back to someone’s home for a three course meal and a feather bed.
Right now, it was impossible to tell which way this ride was going to go.
“I liked the Blackhawks,” the guy was saying. “The rotors on those, whew! You could always tell when one was coming from the sound of those blades, yes sir.”
They were sweeping through country that was rough and rugged. Tall, old pine trees lined the road, the smell of them blasted through the gap in Wright’s window. Some exposed rock in the undergrowth.
“You serve?” the guy asked. He had a wiry white mustache and a Tigers cap, as orange as the fruit.
“I was a cop,” Wright said. “Doesn’t really count.”
“You served in your own way.”
“You been out this way before?”
“Don’t call me ‘sir’. Just ‘Fast’.”
“Haven’t heard my real name since I was maybe three. Apparently I’m a fast learner. But it’s more like I can look at something and see how it works.”
“Like a helicopter rotor assembly.”
They rode in silence for a few minutes. The wind ruffled the trees. As they passed a clearing, Wright caught a glimpse of a raptor, diving into the grassy area. Must have seen a mouse or a small bird.
“If you have a moment or two,” Fast said, “We can stop off at Deep Cove Point. We might just catch the sunset and, let me tell you, a sunset over the Pacific. Ain’t nothing like it.”
“I’m not in any particular hurry,” Wright said. “Sounds like a deal to me.”
“Well all right then.” Fast sped up, and a few minutes later turned from the tarmac onto a gravel road.
The trees seemed to have closed in, and the road was even more twisted and tangled than the one they’d left. Fast barely seemed to slow.
Another few minutes and around a couple of bends, Wright glimpsed a graveled parking lot, fenced off from what looked like a cliff. Beyond lay the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The lot was below them, far off and around a few more bends. But, for a moment, he had a good view.
A vehicle in the lot already. And a couple of people.
One of them staggered back.
Fast’s car’s tires crunched on the gravel. The stern swayed around corners. The rock chips on the road seemed a bright gray, as if a fresh load had been graded in recently. They’d had no time since leaving the crusher to become soiled and weathered.
The parking lot had vanished out of sight, hidden behind the thick trees.
The land was steeper here right near the coast. The Pacific slowly nibbling away as the bluffs. The road led Fast’s old Ford down.
“Give you a meal later,” Fast said, one hand on the wheel, the other on the gearshift. “If you’re hungry. If you can cope with bacon and cheese omelet.” The way he said it made it sound as if that was about the only meal he ate.
“Bacon and cheese omelet sounds good to me,” Wright said.
“Can’t offer you a bed. My place is tiny enough with just me. But there is a woodshed out back that’s not too bad. Got a trestle in there. We could lay down a couple of blankets. Shut the door you’d be fine.”
Fast glanced his way.
“Of course,” he went on, “I wouldn’t want to offend. Your tastes may be much more refined.”
Almost as if it was a test.
“I’ve slept on trestles before. Slept on worse.”
Facing the road again, Fast smiled.
They came around the corner and onto the expanse of the overlook parking lot.
The other vehicle was there.
The two people.
One standing. One laid out on the ground.
The one on the ground struggled to his feet. He was holding a gun.
He pointed it around. Aiming at Fast’s car.
Fast swore. The marines would have been proud.
Out over the ocean beyond the overlook, some gulls glided along, white wings spread wide, red bills darting left and right. Always something interesting to look at if you were a gull.
Fast brought the car to a stop.
The guy with the gun got to his feet. He was wearing a formal suit. Not quite a tux, but definitely black tie. As if he’d just stepped out from some award ceremony to get some air.
Wright pulled on his door handle.
“Wouldn’t do that,” Fast said.
“That guy’s armed.”
The other figure, a woman, who’d now stepped back, looked like she was out for a jog, wearing bright running clothes and expensive shoes.
One of them out exercising, one dressed to the nines. Neither really fit with how remote the location was.
“Looks like she can take care of herself. Looks like she knocked him down.”
“Yes, on both.”
“So,” Fast said, “seeing’s as how this guy is holding a Smith and Wesson M&P 9, and is pointing it right at me, I figure I’m going to back right out of here. Sorry about your sunset.”
“Mind if I stick around?” Wright kept his hand on the door handle.
The guy with the gun wasn’t steady on his feet at all. But, he was the one with the gun. Fast knew his weapons. The M&P 9 was a police issue weapon too, so maybe this was a cop, or he’d taken it from a cop.
“You gonna stick around?” Fast said. “Well, I can’t leave you to that.”
“Don’t feel obliged.”
“Oh, not at all.” Fast stared straight at him. “I’m seventy-nine years old. Not as fast as I used to be, but never one to shy away from a little action.”
Fast opened his door. Stepped out into the cooling air.
Wright did likewise.
The guy with the gun was shaky, but coming around.
The other vehicle was a Caddy. Late model too. Darkened windows and buffed paint. It was as shiny as Fast’s car was dull.
“If I were you,” the guy with the gun said, “I would get back into the car and go find somewhere else to be. Forget you were ever here.”
“Well,” Fast said, stepping around. “You ain’t me, so there’s no argument at all.”
On the near side, the back door on the car opened. A woman stepped out. She was wearing a red ball gown. She had coiffured dark hair that was almost buoyant.
The gown was cut to her figure, not revealing, though. Elegant and classy. She was wearing dark glasses with big lenses and tortoiseshell lenses.
The other woman stared at her.
“Delle,” the woman in the gown said. “Delle, Delle, Delle. Why would you think you could possibly back out of our little agreement.”
Spoken as if Wright and Fast weren’t even there.
“There’s no agreement,” said the woman in exercise gear–Delle, presumably.
“And now we have witnesses here.”
“You planned this?” Delle said.
“Had access to the boat,” the man with the gun said. “Easy enough.”
“You sabotaged my boat?”
The guy shrugged. He kept the gun aimed at Fast.
They formed a rough pentagon, a couple of yards between Wright and Fast, a couple of yards between the guy with the gun and the woman in the ball gown. She was a little under three yards from Wright.
Delle, the woman in the bright exercise gear, was a little father off, stretching out that corner of the pentagon.
It was a bad situation with the gun right there. The guy could practically pick them off at will.
So the situation needed something to mess with it.
“Where’s the boat now?” Wright said.
He started walking toward the rough fence. He cut between Fast and Delle.
The fence was the kind of thing that had probably been put in about twenty years back. Maybe after some incident. Maybe a car went over the side and the county made a token effort to prevent that happening again. And then they’d promptly forgotten it.
“Stop there,” the guy with the gun said.
One body was a problem, for sure. But three, that was a real problem. With them all dressed up like that.
Wright was betting the guy wouldn’t shoot.
“Is the boat down here?” Wright said. Kind of obvious, really. The ocean was below. Where else would the boat be?
Wright kept walking.
The guy fired. The loud crack of the discharge echoing around.
So much for betting that the guy wouldn’t shoot.
The shot had been high and wide. The bullet now arcing out across the Pacific. Might hit some poor seabird or fish out there. Most likely the round would just splash down and sink to the bottom.
Wright was practically at the fence.
He hadn’t been shot. Maybe that was down to luck. Or maybe that was the actual last warning.
Maybe these people were smart enough to know that three bodies was bad odds. That kind of stuff caught up with you.
“I want to see the boat,” he said. What he wanted was to keep the gun aimed away from Fast and Delle. He would come to the fence and move along. Force the guy to turn and track him.
There would be one moment where the gun was aimed at Delle, but sometimes you took calculated risks.
None of his business really. Could have just stayed in the car with Fast. Let him back away.
“I don’t see a boat,” Wright said, looking over the fence, moving along.
Below him was a gradual curve of slope that looked as if it just vanished into a cliff. He couldn’t see where the land met the water.
“There’s a channel down there,” Delle said, stretching out her vowels as if she was from the far corner of the country. Georgia, maybe.
“A channel?” Wright said.
“Well, it’s a cove. The boat went off course. It got caught in the swell.”
“Which was the whole plan,” the man with the gun said. “Now, buddy, why don’t you come on back over this way?”
“Me?” Wright said.
“You might be over there thinking to yourself that I’m a bad shot. You might feel that the odds are a little in your favor. After all, you saw me getting up after being knocked down. You might be thinking that I’m off my game.”
“I was thinking along those lines,” Wright said.
“I’m a professional here.”
“Good for you. How’s the pay?”
“Come back over here.”
“What kind of boat?” Wright said. He didn’t move. Just kept looking over the slope. The waves were long and straight, stretching north and south. They’d come all the way from Hawaii or Japan or the Kamchatka peninsula.
“Buddy,” the guy said. “Don’t make me count.”
“Did the engine break down?” Wright said.
“Yes,” Delle said.
One of the passing gulls called. A loud plaintive bleat. Hard to tell if it meant it was annoyed at the intrusion of folks with cars and guns, or if it was calling to others.
“So this,” Fast said, “is not making any sense to me. You were on boat, honey and–“
“Don’t call me honey.”
“Ma’am, I’m sorry.”
“Just Delle, please.”
“Will you people be quiet?” the woman in the ball gown said.
“I still haven’t figured it out,” Wright said. He kept moving along the rail.
“Nothing to figure out.”
“Did you climb up here?” Wright said, turning to Delle. The others were all still where they’d been.
“Right up from the water.” She looked around at him. Her eyes picked up the sun as it reached for the horizon.
She was a few years older than he was, maybe even late thirties. Clear that she looked after herself, though the climb up from the water must have taken it out of her.
“You knocked him down?” Wright said.
“Enough,” the woman in the ball gown said. “We just have a few questions for her and we’ll be on our way.”
“Ask your questions,” Wright said. “What’s the occasion?”
“Huh?” the guy with the gun said.
“We’re the ones asking the questions,” the woman said. She stepped away from the car.
“I haven’t heard a question yet,” Wright said. “But I’ve got a few of my own.”
“Likewise,” Fast said. He’d stayed by the front of his car. The separation between him and Wright, with the gunman between was close to a hundred and eighty degrees. No way the guy could shoot them both.
The gunman was standing where he’d been. Back to the woman, side on to the Cadillac. Facing so he could watch Wright and Delle.
“Where are you from?” Wright said, meaning Delle. She had her eyes on him. Hard to tell what she was thinking.
“Seattle,” she said.
“How about that. Me too. You ever get over to–“
“Stop.” The woman in the ball gown stepped away from the car. “He opens his mouth again, shoot him.”
“Wouldn’t do that,” Fast said.
“Or shoot him,” she said. “I don’t care. I just want to know what happened to the package.”
She took a step toward Delle.
Who were the good guys in this situation? Easy to assume that the guy with the gun was in the wrong, that the woman who’d climbed up the cliff was the victim.
He’d made mistakes like that before. You had to step back. Avoid assumptions.
Fact was, anyone who was shooting at him was a bad guy.
Wright took a step back from the fence. Toward the Cadillac. It was a nice car. Well-maintained. Kind of thing it took money to get your hands on.
Didn’t things like this always involve money? Real money. Not the kind of cash involved when your friend bought your movie ticket, or a someone built a deck on the back of your house.
The kind of money most people would retire on.
“What’s in the package?” Wright said. He flicked his eyes from Delle to the guy with the gun. Even though he’d fired a shot, he didn’t look like he was going to shoot again anytime soon. Still a little dazed.
Wright took another step.
“He don’t look so good,” Fast said.
“No,” Wright said. “She must have popped him a good one.”
“I did,” Delle said. “But that was before I knew he had a gun.”
“Makes sense,” Fast said. “I wouldn’t go knocking someone down if they had a gun on me.”
“Enough!” The woman in the ball gown stepped forward. She ripped the gun from the guy’s hand. She pointed it a Wright’s feet.
Whipped around. Fired a second shot. At Fast’s feet.
Came back again.
A third shot. This one at Delle’s feet.
“You people are not getting the message. Shut up. Answer the question. Where. Is. The. Package?”
The woman kept the gun aimed right at Delle. Center mass.
A kill shot.
A Smith and Wesson M&P 9 is a well-balanced pistol. Smith and Wesson make a fine range of weapons, many destined for law enforcement agencies.
Wright had fired plenty of them himself. Little kick, nice feel in the hand. No jamming.
The magazine would hold fifteen, with a chambered round too. By Wright’s count, that made twelve left.
No chance of safely disarming her. Or even risking a bad shot. Had to assume a full magazine.
And she was quite the marksman, too.
All the shots had been about a half a foot to the right of the target.
Ostensible target. She’d hit exactly where she’d meant to. Intentional. The bullets might have buried themselves in the ground, or ricocheted away. But it would have been bad luck if the ricochet had angled back and hit one of them. Maybe catching a bad angle from one of the rock chips in the gravel parking lot.
“I suppose,” Wright said, “someone ought to tell her where the package is.”
A gull alighted near him, on the fence’s rail. Perhaps it was the same gull that had been gliding around and calling.
“I don’t know about a package,” Delle said.
“Course you do,” the guy who’d previously had the gun said. He was scowling. He was supposed to be the tough guy here. Now he’d been knocked down, and disarmed.
Guy like that, his ego wouldn’t like it. Chances were his precious little ego was even more bruised because both actions had been by women. Too old fashioned.
“What was the package?” Wright said. He held his hands low and out. I’m unarmed. Let’s talk this through.
The woman turned. She stared at him.
“The boat was leased to us, for as and when we required it.”
“Smuggling something,” Wright said.
“Yet this woman chose to take the boat–“
“It’s my boat.”
“You’re still bound by the contract signed by your father.”
“There was no contract.”
“Guns?” Wright said. He took another step closer. “Drugs? Data? What were you smuggling?”
“It doesn’t matter. It was loaded in the boat. She took it.”
“Whatever it is,” Delle said, “it’s at the bottom of the ocean now.”
The woman in the ball gown licked her lips. “You’re telling me you didn’t know about it?”
“Of course she knew about it,” the guy said.
“Don’t think she did,” Fast said.
“I really didn’t,” Delle said.
The woman with the gun sighed.
The logic of crooks. Assuming that everyone was crooked and just out to get them. Didn’t matter if you were some street thug or rolling in dollars, like these two, you still thought the world was out to get you.
Wright took a half a step forward. Getting within reach. Almost.
Very delicate time now.
The guy was watching him. The woman had the gun aimed right at Delle.
Anything could set it off.
A couple of big dark birds darted through the trees behind the gravel parking lot. They twittered and spun, almost like some dogfight.
Above and behind, puffy clouds were growing. Moist air pushed in off the ocean, and up by the terrain. Maybe they would dump some rain later. The land around here sure could use it.
“Sounds like she didn’t know about this package,” Wright said.
“The package was right under the galley sink,” the woman said. “She had to know about it, because she would have stored food there.”
“I didn’t store any food.” Delle glanced at Wright, back at the woman.
Another sigh. The woman adjusted the shoulder of her dress. She was wearing heels, but not too high, and not stilettos. As if she’d been expecting to be walking on rough ground, but still wanted to look good for whatever event later.
“You were seen loading the food,” she said. “A cardboard box, open at the top. A couple of cans and a bag of cereal sticking up.”
Delle’s lips pursed.
“Our contact told us you’d left the marina. Heading south.”
“We shut down your steering,” the guy said. “On remote.”
“Seems mighty impolite,” Fast said.
The gull that was on the fence took to the air with a squawk. Below, the waves continued to pound in.
“I overrode it,” Delle said. “But it made things worse. No control at all.”
“Let me see if I understand this all,” Wright said. “You stored a package on her boat. Then, when she took the boat, you used some remote system to disable it. Right here?”
Wright turned, looking back out toward the ocean, but using the pivot to move himself closer to the group. To the woman.
“Nasty rocky coast, this,” Fast said. “No place to be in a boat without steering.”
Wright turned again, bringing himself just a little closer.
“Believe me,” Delle said to Fast, “I know it.”
“You wanted the package,” Wright said, “but you wrecked the boat, meaning that it’s taken the package down with it.”
The guy in the suit grunted. As it was obvious, now that it had been pointed out to him.
“You’re running your operation much too lean,” Wright said. “You needed to be tailing her in another boat, not in this.”
“We didn’t have another boat,” the woman said. She jabbed the gun’s muzzle toward Delle. “She knew we were using the boat. She knew what for.”
“Happy to turn the other way,” the guy said. “As long as she needed the cash for her dear departed dad’s hospital expenses.”
“So she took the package,” Wright said. “When she knew the boat was going to wreck. Took it with her. Hid it away somewhere on the cliff face there. Some nook. Figured she would come back later.”
“She would have known by then,” Fast said. “Would have known that the disabled boat wasn’t a random accident.”
“Yes,” Wright said. “She would have figured you to be after her.”
“Knowing that you didn’t have another boat.”
“So you’d be coming by land.” Wright nodded at their car. “In your fancy ride.”
“We should go have a look down there,” Fast said. “Probably hidden away.”
“There’s nothing hidden away,” Delle said. “There’s no real cliff. Just grass that gets real steep. Rocks at the bottom.”
“She doesn’t have it on her,” Fast said. “Outfit like that, you’d know right away. Meaning no offense.”
“None taken,” Delle said.
“How about this?” Wright said. “I’ll go down and take a look. Your goon can come with. We’ll have a good hunt for this package.”
He was less than a yard from the woman now. Almost within striking range.
“You?” the woman said.
“Just trying to figure out a way that no one gets shot.”
“Very admirable. I–“
Wright moved then. Ducking. Moving quickly.
Charging ahead. A football tackle.
He caught the woman around the waist.
The gun went off.
For a moment, Wright and the woman were airborne. In weightless freefall.
She smelled of roses.
She twisted in his grip.
Wright landed hard. A sharp piece of the gravel drove into his shoulder.
She’d twisted enough that his full weight didn’t come down her. She wrestled from his grasp.
Wright grabbed for her, but she scrambled away. Sharp pain came from his shoulder. The feel of blood trickling.
She sat, staring at him. Out of reach. Her ball gown was ripped at her hip.
She didn’t have the gun.
Wright whipped around. Still on the ground. Looking for the weapon.
Had to be somewhere.
Delle was holding it. Like Wright, she was bleeding from her left shoulder.
Unlike Wright, the wound looked bad. Moist and glistening in the fading light.
The gull darted low, squawking at them.
Delle held the gun in her right hand. She seemed unsteady.
“I found your package,” she said. She started walking around to the side, kind of following the path Wright had taken earlier.
“Knew it,” the guy in the suit said. He was standing back by the car. Leaning on the hood.
Delle kept the gun trained on him.
“Of course I found it,” she said. “You could have been more obvious. Keys.”
“So where is it?” the woman stood. She dusted off her gown, as if that would make it all right.
Fast stayed where he was, right at the front of his dull old Ford. He looked bemused.
Delle continued on. She went around the front of the Cadillac.
“Where is it?” the guy said.
“Keys,” she said. “Give me the keys to your car.”
“As if I’m going to do that.”
Delle shot him. The sound cracked through the lot. Up into the trees.
Some birds took flight.
The guy went down. Not dead. Shot in the shoulder.
Same as her.
Not a random, accidental shot. She knew how to handle a weapon.
The guy had collapsed to the gravel. He lay, panting. Not screaming, though it must have been excruciating. Impressive.
“Okay,” Wright said, getting to his feet. “Looks like we’re done here.”
“We could give you a lift,” Fast said. “Take you to town somewhere.”
“Oh,” Delle said. “We’re not done here. Not by a long shot.”
She moved away from the side of the Cadillac and took aim. She shot out the front tire. The crack of the gunshot blended with the ugly, burping blast of the tire exploding.
She did the same to the back tire.
The Cadillac rocked on its suspension with the sudden removal of air from the tires.
She came around and put two more shots into the near side tires. Then she reached inside and popped the trunk. The spare got the same treatment.
“Starting to hurt my poor old ears,” Fast said. “I haven’t heard this much shooting since back in the good old days.”
Delle took something from the trunk and brought it around. She tossed it to the woman in the ball gown.
A first aid kit.
“Your buddy might need some help,” Delle said. “Might be a while before you get an ambulance out this way.”
The guy was moaning now.
“You need that,” Wright said.
“It’s a scratch,” Delle said. “This guy’s got a bullet lodged against his scapula.”
“Got you covered, anyway,” Fast said. “Got a better kit than that in my glove compartment.”
Of course he did. The car might be run down, but Fast was a smart guy.
“I did find your package.” Delle pointed the gun inside the car. She fired four more shots. Into the upholstery and the dash.
“It was so obvious. You assumed that you could just continue using the boat and that made me mad. Real mad.”
“Where is the package?” the woman said.
“Thing with a yacht is that you have a lot of sharp tools. For cutting rope and gutting fish and peeling vegetables. So I cut the package open. I let the contents waft away on the breeze.”
The woman closed her eyes. “You’ll pay for this.”
“No,” Wright said. “She has witnesses now.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Sure,” Delle said. “You left drugs on my boat so I–“
“I could feel the package. Powdery. About two pounds. Maybe less.”
Delle went around the guy who was still lying on the ground moaning, clutching his shoulder.
Delle fired another shot into the car’s grill. Steam hissed through the gap.
“I figure it’s drivable,” Delle said. “But you’ll have to take it slow. You should look after him.”
She headed toward Fast’s car.
“Guess we can be on our way,” Fast said.
“If you’d take another passenger.”
“Hop on in.”
Fast went around and got in. He started the car. Delle got in back.
Wright stood a moment watching the woman. She didn’t move.
“Come on,” Fast said. “We got places to be.”
Wright held up his hand. “Just a moment.”
Wind ruffled through the trees upslope, peace and soft, as if no one had been shooting the tires out of cars, or wrecking smuggler boats. Nature didn’t care.
Wright’s shoulder throbbed, but it felt like the bleeding had stopped. He went to the woman in the ball gown.
“Give me that,” he said, and just took the first aid kit from her.
He went to the guy and took out a bandage. Wright stripped off the plastic wrapping. He took the guy’s hand off the wound and put the still-rolled bandage over it. He put the guy’s hand back.
“Hold that there. Pressure.”
The guy grunted.
Wright rolled him a little and found his phone in his back pocket. A swipe at the screen brought up the camera.
Wright photographed him. He stood and photographed the woman. The car, the parking lot, the trees.
He took the phone with him back to Fast’s car. Handed it to Delle.
“What was all that?” Fast said. “With the phone?”
“Evidence, I hope.”
“You don’t have your own phone?”
“Not right now.” Wright looked over at Delle. “Nice shooting.”
Delle dropped the gun. It thumped into the footwell.
“She emptied it,” Fast said. “Woman knows her guns.”
“I didn’t really throw away their package,” Delle said. “I did take it. I did hide it in the rocks.”
She had Fast’s first aid kit already and with scissors, was cutting away at the blood-stained fabric to get at the wound.
“Hid it?” Fast said. “Now why would you do that?”
“Me?” Wright said.
“Well?” Fast said.
“It wasn’t drugs?”
“It was human remains, wasn’t it?”
“Where is it?” Wright said.
“Human what?” Fast said.
“Ashes,” Delle said. “Who knows why it was packaged in taped-up brown paper, but there you go.”
“Her father?” Wright said.
“My guess, yes.”
“His last wishes, maybe. The smuggler wanted to have a final joke on some client somewhere.”
Fast laughed. “That’s great. I love that. I can picture a movie star out there snorting up someone’s ashes.”
Wright looked back across toward the woman and the guy. Hard not to feel sorry for her. Whoever you were and whatever you did in life, a parent was still a parent.
Closure, they called it. Real important.
“You didn’t dump it?” Wright asked Delle.
“I left it on the climb,” Delle said. “Kind of near the top. It’s pretty out of reach, but I figured someday, someone might find it. Wonder how a package of drugs got wedged in behind a gull’s nest here on the coast.”
“Insurance,” Wright said. “You knew they were coming for it. You needed backup in case we didn’t show up.”
“She was expecting us?” Fast said.
“No,” Wright said. “If she’d known we were coming she would have tossed it.”
“I wouldn’t,” Delle said. “I couldn’t do that.”
“Can I get to it?” Wright said.
Delle took a breath. “Let me. I know where it is.” She opened the door and got out of Fast’s car.
“You need a rope?” Fast said. “I’ve got one in the trunk.”
“I’ll be fine.”
And she was. She scampered across the gravel lot and over the fence. Vanished toward the ocean.
“I’m losing my faith in human nature,” Fast said.
“Isn’t this moment helping you regain it?” Wright said.
“Whatever. It’s a very complex thing.”
“Absolutely. Who would have thought that one moment this shipwrecked woman would be shooting out the radiator in that nice car there, then next moment she’s clambering down a cliff to retrieve someone’s ashes?”
“Not me,” Wright said.
A moment later, Delle reappeared. She had a package. She carried it over to the woman and handed it to her.
“I hope you get closure,” Delle said.
The woman stared. Her face was a mask, but right there, right underneath, it looked as if she was about to burst into tears.
Delle came over and got into the back seat of Fast’s car. Wright got into the front passenger seat.
Fast backed around. Sped out of the lot, and off along the winding road.
“Nice work,” Fast said, with a laugh. “Nice work everyone. I haven’t had so much fun in ages. Now, how do bacon and cheese omelets sound?”
“Sounds great to me,” Delle said.
Wright smiled. He was hungry. It sounded pretty great to him too.
Thanks for reading “A Steep Climb”. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did (after all, this is marketing, right), check out the other stories and novels in the series on the Cole Wright page on the website here. Ebooks, paperbacks and even hardbacks (of the novels). Does anyone want audiobooks? Seems as if lately the AI revolution is making that a little more cost effective (as expense, I suspect, of numerous skilled voice artists – that’s kind of scary). Maybe I should wander down that path for a little while.
Again, thanks. Feel free to comment, even just to say hi.