After losing everything in a bitter divorce, Peter retreats to a secluded cabin in the Catskill Mountains where he is trapped by earthquakes and months of unrelenting snow.  Just as he is convinced he is the only survivor of a mysterious global cataclysm, he meets a woman seeking refuge from a past she won’t reveal. 

Her arrival rescues him from unbearable isolation, but when the snow finally stops and her secret catches up with her, Peter is forced to choose between saving her life and following his conscience. 

His decision sends them running for their lives and searching for answers as the melting snow reveals a world unlike anything anyone has ever seen.  Together they will learn not only what caused the greatest disaster in the planet’s history, but that the worst may be yet to come.

Read the first three chapters below!

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Ice Fall

Prologue – Reaper

 

…for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.

― Herman Melville

 

Mark felt the rumble a few seconds before he noticed it. It was like a subway train passing by underfoot, filtered out by a mind long accustomed to a cacophony of urban noises. He became aware of it partly because it was gradually building in intensity, and partly because it was out of place on the twelfth floor of the NYMEX building. It would take a hell of a train to reach that high. His first reaction was to press F3 to save his work, his second was to laugh at his folly. Finally, a proper worker drone, thinking of the Exchange before himself.

“Mark!” someone shouted. It was Nancy, the tech writer, her dark hair silhouetted against the twinkling lights of the office Christmas tree. Her knuckles glared white as she gripped his cubicle wall. “What the hell is that?” She was trying to put on a brave face, but he could see the sparkle of moisture on her pretty auburn eyes.

“I don’t know.” He was on his feet, moving around the cubicle to join her as they merged with a throng of curious coworkers headed towards the closest window. They were near a row of offices that robbed them of a decent view and had to turn towards the receptionists’ area where a window ran along the entire wall.

“I’m scared. Nine eleven…”

“Don’t worry,” Mark said, giving her a pat on the shoulder. “They’re probably just moving something big down one of the nearby streets. Some rich asshole’s mega yacht or something.” He would have loved to do more, to hold her and comfort her, but a sexual harassment suit and dismissal were a more immediate danger than whatever was causing the rumbling.

They heard a scream somewhere up ahead and suddenly the crowd they were following was moving in the opposite direction, towards the elevator and stairways. The first few faces that passed were confused and annoyed, but then came the ashen ones, and suddenly Mark was afraid. More screams joined the first until the pounding of his heart subdued all other sounds. He felt a hand on his and turned to see Nancy holding onto him as tightly as she had gripped his cubicle. Mark had never been much for crowds and so he pressed onwards. When he rounded the bend past the corner office he saw the window.

The Hudson River, the Jersey City skyline. Nothing out of the ordinary. What had caused the screams? He heard Nancy’s sharp intake of breath and felt her grip tighten until he almost screamed out and yanked away. Instead of looking at her, his gaze swept sideways towards the bay. He saw it, just past the Statue of Liberty.

At first, he did not believe his eyes. It looked more like something out of a big budget Michael Bay movie than something that belonged in the real world, but he was looking at a window, not a theater screen. It was real, even though he couldn’t understand how it could be.

He felt Nancy’s hand pulling on his own. “Come on!” she shouted frantically. “We have to go!”

“No,” he said, strangely calm. “There’s no point.” Everything he knew about reality screamed that what he was looking at could not exist, and yet, there it was. Nancy tugged a few more times, then stopped. She did not let go. Mark watched it get closer. In seconds it engulfed the statue. In seconds more it would sweep over NYMEX and then the rest of Manhattan. His whole life, studying, working his ass off, no love life to speak of, all for nothing. And it didn’t matter. Once death was certain, it was surprisingly easy to accept.

“I’m scared,” Nancy said once again.

“I am too.”

 No longer fearing sexual harassment charges, he pulled her towards him and held her tightly. She put her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. Her hair smelled like lavender.

He watched death sweep towards them. It was strangely beautiful. He wondered how they would die, and whether it would hurt. Only a few more seconds, and he would have his answers.

 

Chapter 1 – Isolation

 

Cold in the earth, and the deep snow piled above thee,

Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave.

Have I forgot, my Only Love, to love thee,

Severed at last by Time's all-wearing wave?

-Emily Brontë

 

 

The rubber ball bounced off the corner of the windowsill and hit the top of the curio cabinet, knocking down a little crystal frog. The figurine broke into several pieces that scattered under the couch and dining table. Only the green head remained in sight, one clear eye staring above the swirl of orange glass that passed for a mouth. The ball continued into the kitchen, where it rolled to a stop near a stack of empty bottles.

Peter stared at the frog's head, not sure how to feel. It had been Jennifer's, one of the few things she bought to decorate their vacation home. The divorce judgment and notice of forced sale were in the kindling pile he used to light the wood stove, but he always skipped over them, wanting a reminder of the pain she had caused. It was hard to hate someone who was most likely dead, but he was determined to try.

He got a dustpan and broom from the closet and swept up the fragments, then carefully picked them out of the incidental dirt and placed them on the dining table next to his rifle. It was a tangible reminder of his old life, and he needed as much of that as he could get, even if it included her. There were several types of glue and epoxy in the utility room, he was sure he could find something that would hold the thing together. It was a project, something to work on, to occupy his mind.

“Playtime’s over,” he said. He took his clipboard off of the wall and sat down on the nearest couch. He didn’t need to itemize his tasks, but keeping track of work had become a chore in itself, and that had value. Keep busy, keep the mind active and avoid thinking about the snow—or the fact the he no longer made any attempt to stop talking to himself.

Clean and lubricate rifle,” he said, reading the first item on the list. “I did that yesterday.” He wondered why he hadn’t checked it off. Grabbing a pen, he put a mark next to the entry.

Rotate magazines.” That he hadn’t done for a while. He had never been sure if it was better to leave them loaded or to periodically swap them out for fresh ones. Perhaps that was something they taught in the last two weeks of SQT and thus he would never know. But he knew what was better for him, and that involved doing something. “I’ll do that tomorrow.” He read down the list, skipping over boring things like inventorying food and clearing snow.

Kill yourself.” He crossed that one out. “Real funny, asshole.”

Chop wood.” He looked at the small pile of logs next to the wood stove. They would last a couple of days if he stretched them out. Why had he buried it at the bottom of the list? Was that seeming oversight perhaps related to the previous item? Setting down the clipboard, he turned to the window and looked through the frosted glass. The snow was falling harder now, pushed to a steep angle by a steadily strengthening wind. Craning his neck to see above the trees, he caught a glimpse of dark clouds rolling in from the north. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply.

“I guess I’d better get to it.” He sometimes felt like a soldier, fighting an endless battle against a relentless horde of tiny white invaders. He was constantly clearing paths around the house so he could get to the shed, the woodpile and the propane tanks. No matter how hard he worked, more always fell, covering his tracks as though consciously trying to wash away any trace of his existence. If Peter believed in god, he would have imagined that the creator was starting over, erasing his canvas by painting a layer of white so thick that nothing would show through.

He made his way to the coat closet and took out his green parka, still damp from the last time he had been outside two days before. He stared at it for a moment, then put it back and closed the door.

“Maybe later,” he said. In the house, he could pretend that things were normal, at least sometimes. If he didn’t look outside, or notice the slight sag in the roof over the extension where the contractors had taken liberties with the building codes, he would never know that the world was being buried. That he was being buried. Buried alive.

Feeling the sudden onset of panic, he grabbed one of his flashlights and rushed down to the ground level basement and into the utility room, the only part of the house without windows. Slamming the door shut behind him, he rested his elbows against the laundry machine, held his head in his hands and stared down at the pan of unused cat litter his ex-wife had never bothered to put away.

Cat litter, a laundry machine, a dryer, some tools, a water heater, pipes. Perfectly normal things, and not a hint of snow anywhere. It was like a museum of the old world, unmolested except for the hand pump next to the pressure tank.

The books were the most important items in the room. He had stacked them on the high shelves where the now useless power tools had been. They were not the modern genre fiction that he read for general escapism—those he kept upstairs—but classics from the courses he taught. He had resented teaching literature at first—his degree was in writing, but creative writing classes were for tenured professors. Over time, the near futility of trying to foster appreciation for these timeless works of art among dull minded students began to rub off on him. Jennifer used to buy him expensive leather-bound editions as holiday gifts, assuming that he would want them because of his job. Eventually, through no merit of her own, she became right.

The windowless utility room was the perfect place to escape from his reality by projecting it into fiction. He found inspiration in the words of Herman Melville while fighting his own great white terror, and sailed a hauntingly familiar snowscape with Mary Shelly’s tragic anti-hero. He also found solace in the works of the classical poets, thanks in part to an old professor who had asked Peter to cover some of his poetry classes due to failing health. And while he started out hating it, his appreciation had grown until he found himself reading and sometimes even reciting them on his own.

When he felt like killing himself, he read Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night. It helped, but he wasn’t sure for how much longer. In Purgatorio, Dante encountered ‘un’anima sola soletta,’ a soul all alone. This soul was singled out for its unusual isolation. Damnation, purgation and eternal salvation were portrayed as collective experiences in the Commedia, meant to be shared with others. Even the damned were, for the most part, spared the hell that Peter was forced to endure.

He decided to stay in the utility room for a while until the panic left him, and took a book down from its shelf. Robinson Crusoe. It had seemed at first like an ironic way to escape his misery, but Crusoe had coped with isolation a lot better than Peter, and there was comfort in his optimism. Peter only wished he had a parrot and a goat to call friend, or even a cat to use the lonely litter box. He found the bookmarked page and started reading.

A while turned into the better part of an hour. There was no hurry, he could stay as long as he wanted, but knowing that he would eventually need to get the firewood soured the experience. He decided he would do what he had to do, then come back and spend the evening. Maybe he would start The Heart of Darkness again. Perhaps he would even take one of the books upstairs, out of this shrine to the old world, and read it on the couch.

The thought of returning gave him the strength he needed, and he went back upstairs and donned the parka without hesitation. He took his pistol from the holster on his hip and put it in one of the coat’s outer pockets. He used to take the rifle, but he just didn’t have the energy anymore. He doubted there was anyone left alive out there to bother him, and if there were, the snow was impassable.

Once dressed in coat and boots, he braced himself, opened the door and stepped outside. The wind hit his exposed face instantly, chilling his cheeks and the tip of his nose. He zipped up his hood so that only a small opening remained. The deck was covered by a couple of feet of snow, with the usual drifts on the windward side reaching almost to his waist. This was less than he expected, which was either a meaningless coincidence or a very good sign. He hadn’t started counting the days until a couple of weeks after the quake, but as far as he could tell it was April. Spring was long overdue.

The first of the quakes, the big one, had been the first sign that something had happened. It had been fairly mild. There was no damage to the house or anything in it, except for some decorative beer steins that fell off of their shelves. His first thought was that earthquakes didn’t happen in upstate New York. He almost didn’t believe it, thought perhaps he had imagined it, or that it was something else, like an airplane crash somewhere close to the house. Then the lights went out.

He remembered standing in front of the television, staring stupidly at the blank screen while the generator raced noisily outside. Had it in fact been an earthquake? Had it knocked down some power lines? If so, why wasn’t his satellite receiver getting a signal? It couldn’t have been a coincidence that the snow came shortly after the first quake. More tremors followed, weaker, less intense, but the snow never stopped. He was fortunate that his log cabin was situated where it was, saved by some fluke of elevation or wind patterns from being completely buried like the houses all around it. Or was he? Considering his circumstances, perhaps they were the lucky ones.

He kicked the snow in front of him as he walked around the side of the house. Up by the pond, the snow was barely a few feet deep despite the fact that he had never cleared it, yet only the tops of the tallest trees were visible down by the road. It was possible to move around out there with the right equipment, but one wrong step and he would disappear forever.

By the time he got as close as he could to the shed, there was a layer of frost inside his hood that had partially melted and seeped down to his chin. He got his axe and walked over to the woodpile. The snow here was a bit deeper, almost three feet. He knew he should probably clear it before the storm, but he just didn’t have the strength.

“I’ll get to it tomorrow,” he lied. In the past he had let it pile up until it was almost as tall as he was, then gone out with the shovel and pushed himself until his muscles cramped up and he could barely stand. Those nights, in the grip of exhaustion, were some of the only times he could sleep peacefully. Usually it wasn’t until dark, when he lay alone on his bed listening to the wind beat against the windows, that the pain found him. Loneliness was longing, and it was the longing that would kill him, long before the food ran out, or the firewood.

After digging through the snow and finding a suitable log, he placed it on the nearby stump and chose his position carefully as he hefted the axe. If he were going to die, he would decide how and when. He had no desire to bleed out slowly, freezing to death while the endless flow of white filth erased him from the world. Lifting the axe over his shoulder, he arched his back and let it drop, allowing the heavy steel blade to do its job. It bit into the wood with a satisfying crack, splitting it neatly. He picked up the two halves and tossed them aside before reaching for another log. As he did so, he looked down the hill and saw someone walking towards him. Not one hundred yards away, and he hadn’t seen or heard a thing.

 

 

 

Chapter 2 – Salvation

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

- Robert Frost

 

He stood, frozen, mesmerized by the approaching figure’s lumbering gait. The snow was at least ten feet deep where it walked.

“It’s finally happened,” Peter whispered. “I’ve lost my god damned mind.” He closed his eyes, shook his head, then opened them. It was still there, moving slower than before. Its gait was absurdly methodical, like that of a goose-stepping soldier parading across Red Square—an odd way for a hallucination to walk. There was something strange about its feet, though Peter couldn’t quite make it out through the barrage of snowflakes.

He tried to dispel the apparition, first by closing his eyes again, then by counting, but it persisted despite his efforts. As it came closer, Peter was able to glean more detail and the reason for the odd gait became apparent. There were objects strapped to its feet that reminded him of oddly shaped tennis rackets. No, not tennis rackets—snowshoes.

Suddenly, Peter’s eyed widened and he tensed. This was no hallucination. Someone was coming towards his house. He stared, unable to act. Months alone with the snow, believing, knowing, that there was nothing out there, that there could be nothing out there, and now this?

It wasn’t until he heard the crunching of the snow under its feet—his feet—that he was able to break free of his paralysis. Slowly, carefully, he set the axe down, turned and started towards the house, taking great pains to move casually despite the awful pounding in his chest. There was no need to alert the intruder to the fact that he had been spotted.

Peter shoved his way through the snow towards the stairs leading to his deck and front door. As soon as he turned the corner, he bolted into the house. Slamming the door shut behind him, he pulled off his mittens and went straight for the rifle. In his haste, he knocked some pieces of the crystal frog off of the table. Weapon in hand, he moved to the window.

Nothing. Where there had been a man, there was only empty snow. A strong gust swept a tidal wave of powder across an otherwise lifeless landscape. Peter stared, his body shaking as the adrenaline slowly left his system.

“Son of a bitch!” he swore, lowering the carbine. So it was true. He was losing his mind after all.

“The utility room,” he said, nodding. That was where he kept all of his gun cleaning supplies. Yes, that seemed like a good plan. That was why he had gone for his rifle, not because he saw a phantom, but because he needed to clean it. It was really, really dirty. The clipboard loomed oppressively in his periphery, reminding him that the weapon was in fact spotless, but he ignored it.

Just as he was about to set the carbine down on the table, an impulse made him turn back to the window. There was something out there, something about the snow that wasn’t quite right, though he couldn’t see clearly through the frosted panes.

Frowning, he went back out onto the deck, carrying the rifle casually in one hand. As he strained to see through the snow, his eyes wandered over the white washed hell that had once been his summer getaway. He could almost see Jennifer’s Mercedes pulling up the driveway, slowly making its way around the uphill bend. Just past that last turn up to the house, two stately willows had draped their weeping foliage over a walking path around the back side of the pond. There used to be a swing there, tied to the limb of an old tree. He and his wife would sit and talk until she complained of mosquitoes or whatever rural nuisance-de-jour occurred to her that particular night. One of the willows, the taller one, was now a white mound above the frosted surface, barely taller than Peter, or so it appeared from his vantage point. Sometimes, on a windy day, the gusts tore enough of the snow from its limbs for some of its bare branches to show through. The smaller willow was gone.

He was about to turn back towards the door when he saw it—a disturbance in the smooth while shell just past the edge of the driveway where the snow was shallow enough to echo the contours of the land beneath. Tracks.

Peter followed them with his eyes as far as he could. The tracks turned towards the tree line parallel to the driveway, beyond which a capillary pattern of black branches obscured them.

“Okay,” he said, hefting the carbine. “This is good. It means I’m not crazy.” It also meant that there was an actual intruder, and that he was now hiding, aware of having been spotted. More importantly, it meant that Peter was a great big target, standing still on his deck just asking to be shot.

For a moment, he hesitated. Would being shot really be so bad? It would mean he wouldn’t have to worry anymore, not about shoveling the snow, not about the house collapsing and burying him alive. He could just let go…

Long dormant training took over, and he crouched, bolting towards the stairs. He headed straight for the mound of snow in the shape of his Jeep and took cover, using the vague outline to determine the location of the engine block. He waited, risking an occasional glance towards the direction of the tracks. Several minutes passed, but there was no sign of movement.

He knew he should be cautious and wait. It wasn’t likely that the intruder had been able to move very far without being noticed. He was probably hiding in the snow, waiting for the opportunity to get a clear shot. It was only a few degrees below freezing, and Peter was dressed warmly and was well rested despite the mild exertion of chopping wood. He could stay out for quite a while without major discomfort. The intruder, on the other hand, would have been out for a long time. He would be cold and, Peter had to assume, exhausted. The trespasser would be the one to crack, to make the first move, and then Peter would be the one with the clear shot.

At least that was the idea, but like most exercises in logic, it had little bearing on reality. After a few minutes, Peter began to wonder if he had in fact seen the disturbance in the snow at all. Perhaps it was part of the hallucination, a lingering aftereffect that his subconscious had conjured to torment him.

“Screw it,” he mumbled, and stood up. He moved slowly around the corner of the Jeep mound, watching for movement in the direction of the tracks. With each step, the visible area increased, but he was still protected by the mound from the part he couldn’t see. It was called “slicing the pie,” and allowed him to stay behind cover while clearing an ever larger area beyond the corner. Of course much of the mound was only snow and wouldn’t stop a bullet, but people were not likely to shoot at something they couldn’t see.

During BUDs, one of Peter’s instructors told a story about a lawyer who was confronted by a pistol wielding former client. The lawyer panicked and unfolded his newspaper, holding it before him like a shield. Rather than shoot through the paper, the attacker kept trying to get around it and get a clear shot. The lawyer had been able to hold the man at bay until police arrived with nothing more than the illusion of cover.

Once the area of the tracks was completely in sight, he waited, watching, rifle at the ready. The wind had died down, leaving almost absolute calm. Peter shuddered, taking an involuntary step back. He usually avoided going outside on still days. The silence hung over the world like the mist that clung to an old cemetery, a reminder that there was nothing but death beyond the confines of his property. But was there?

That last thought was more than Peter could handle—he had to know. Leaving the safety of the Jeep, he advanced on the area of the disturbance, moving as fast as he could in the deepening snow. When he turned the bend in the driveway, the going became very difficult. This was past the area he normally cleared, and though the wind had moved much of the buildup closer to the trees, there was still enough left to bury him waist deep. If he went much farther down the driveway, it would become chest deep, then neck deep, and then so deep he would never come out.

He considered going back for a shovel, but thought better of it. He didn’t have much more to go, and it would take more effort to walk back and get it than it would to push through the last few meters to the area of the tracks. As he struggled forward, he saw a patch of green just over the lip of the disturbance. He stopped and brought his weapon to bear, but there was no movement. As he advanced, more of the intruder became visible, enough to see that the man had collapsed face down and lay still. After brushing away the dividing wall of powder, he was up to his thighs in the snow with the man lying on its surface before him as though it were a white hospital bed.

Peter poked him with the rifle’s muzzle, but there was no movement. He poked again, with enough force to hurt, but the man lay still. He was small, perhaps a teenager, though a hooded green parka concealed all features. Holding his rifle with one hand, he grabbed the man’s collar and, in one smooth motion, turned him over and pulled the hood off of his face.

His eyes widened and he inhaled sharply. It was neither a man nor a child, but a girl, a young woman. Her nose was a deep shade of red, as were her full lips. If it were not for her disheveled state, he would have questioned his sanity yet again.

Peter stared, frozen, unsure of what to do, until his right arm began to tremble under the weight of his rifle. He raised the muzzle into the air to ease the burden, then put his left hand over the girl’s mouth and nose. A slight warmth tickled the palm of his hand. She was alive.

Peter slung his rifle and grabbed her by the hood of her coat, dragging her behind him. When he made it to the cleared area, he picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. As he carried her into the house, he felt something crunch under his boot and looked down at the floor. It was the green frog’s head that he had knocked off of the table earlier, crushed into dust.

 

 

Chapter 3 – Anticipation

 

I died for beauty, but was scarce

Adjusted in the tomb,

When one who died for truth was lain

In an adjoining room.

- Emily Dickinson

 

He set her limp body on the couch, his heart pounding, mind racing, full of questions. He thought back to the first time he and Jen had come to the cabin almost five years before. The local phone company hadn’t yet come out to install their phone line, which also meant no internet. It had been three days before they finally showed up, and one more before everything was working. Peter had felt so isolated without the web, as though he were cut off from reality, lost on some savage frontier. If only he had known then what terrible isolation was in store for him.

When that blessed Google screen with its rainbow colors finally popped up on his laptop, his connection to the world had been restored, and with it came a hunger, a need to know what he had missed in the seemingly endless interval of its absence. This girl, with her blue jeans, red cheeks and yellow hair—she was his Google. She had to know, had to fill in the dark chasms of missing time that had so tormented him in his isolated impotence. But there was more to her sudden presence than that.

He found himself staring at her face. Her skin was blotchy from the cold, her eyes closed and hair frizzy with static. But despite all that, she was one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen. A face. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth, cheeks, a chin, a forehead. A pattern that his mind immediately recognized and latched onto. It had been months since he had seen a face other than his own, and he was mesmerized.

After what had to have been a minute or more, he forced his eyes to let go of her face and pulled off his parka, laying it over his rifle, hiding it.

“Let’s get you warmed up.” He walked over to the couch and unzipped the girl’s coat, then turned her on her side to get it off. Underneath, she wore a dirty maroon sweatshirt with the letters “MIT” printed on the front. Was it hers? That school only accepted the best and brightest, unlike where he had worked. Not that there hadn’t been many brilliant students, but dealing with the imbeciles had been taxing. It would be good if she were of the former variety.

Peter continued pulling off her coat. Dark blue showed through the holes in her ragged jeans, probably thermal leggings. Her mittens fell away as he pulled the sleeves off, revealing red fingers laced with patches of white.

“Shit,” he said, staring at the discolored skin. Did she have frostbite? He reached out to touch her hand, and it was shockingly cold. Walking over to the sink, he grabbed a pot and filled it with water. The hand pump he had rigged to pressurize his water tank was working well, though the pressure died down to a trickle by the time he filled the pot half way. It would have to be enough, at least for now.

He set the pot down on the wood stove to heat it. The room started getting warmer almost as soon as he opened the vent to increase the burn rate. The wood stove had been a concession made for a house that didn’t warrant an expensive stone fireplace, something Jennifer had been quick to point out. She had wanted one of the fancier log homes on a private lake, with ornate river-stone hearths and homeowners association rules. If they wanted rules, Peter had pointed out, they could have stayed in New York City. Fortunately, she relented. If she had not, that lovely stone hearth would have long since burned through his firewood, leaving him a frozen corpse.

He realized that the girl’s feet would be no better off than her hands and fetched four bowls from the kitchen and filled them with warm water from the pot. He sat her upright, tilting her head back to rest on the couch cushion, then tugged off her snow shoes and boots. He was about to position the bowls when he noticed something metallic tucked into her waist band. He tugged at her sweatshirt and exposed part of the checkered wooden grip of a handgun.

He blinked, staring at the weapon in surprise, then allowed his eyes to drift up to her face, incongruously innocent. He pulled the sweatshirt and thermal undershirt higher and saw the upper half of a 1911, absurdly large pressed into her slender waist. Its hammer was cocked, and the pistol left an almost perfect impression in her skin once he pulled it out of her jeans. His eyes lingered on her bare waist, smooth and well defined, specked with tiny hairs briefly highlighted by a rogue beam of sunlight. His fascination wasn’t sexual—it was someone else’s body. Someone other than him. A miracle.

He held up the weapon and examined it, his lips pursed and brows crinkled. The pistol was cocked and the thumb safety was off. That was a particularly dangerous way to carry it. It was a modern version of Browning’s venerable design and had a firing pin block, but inside her pants, with her jeans or her skin pressing against the grip safety, something could have easily snagged the trigger. Had she realized that and decided to chance it, or was she merely ignorant of the danger? The answer would tell him a lot about why she carried it.

After removing the magazine, he saw that there were only two rounds left. He checked the chamber, finding a cartridge there as well. Three rounds, out of a total of eight or nine. She had most likely used this weapon. The realization made Peter pause. Whom— or what— had she shot?

He put her 1911 away in his bedroom closet, then got his own pistol and tucked it into the holster on his belt. Seeing the gun had reminded him that despite her youth and pretty face, she could be a serious threat, and he had been a fool not to take precautions. She could have been feigning unconsciousness.

After patting her down for more weapons and finding none, he positioned the bowls next to her hands and feet. She was still unconscious and didn’t flinch as he lowered her extremities into the warm water.

It took a while, but color eventually returned to her skin and she began to move, twisting and turning. She tipped over one of the bowls, soaking the couch, and Peter decided she’d had enough. Fetching a blanket and pillow from one of the spare bedrooms, he lowered her into a lying position and covered her.

“Well,” he said, looking her over. “You don’t have frostbite, whoever the hell you are.”

He debated leaving her alone until she woke, but that pistol had made him uneasy. Better to remain vigilant.

He retrieved his rifle and sat on a nearby love seat with the weapon across his lap. Time passed slowly at first, but then his mind began to wander and fighting sleep distracted him enough to let it pass more quickly. His excitement, however, remained. Sometime soon she would wake, and he would have his answers, and he would no longer be alone. He suddenly felt self conscious and tried not to look at his reflection in the window just above her head. The face in the glass was that of a frightened man hiding in a locked utility room with a pan of old cat litter, trying not to think about a cry for help on a clipboard, or a rifle with a chambered round for only one purpose.