JULIAN MOSS UNFOLDED the note and pressed it over his face with both hands. With his fingertips he molded the paper to his eyelids. His thumbs pushed the edges to his cheeks. The paper smelled like money now, like old leather and sweat. He wished he had a mirror so he could see whether the ink had transferred to his face, the opening line like a blue tattoo across his forehead:
I know what you did.
He eased forward, the note dangling from his fingers. Gravel crunched under his boot and skidded over the ledge, clattered on the rocky outcropping at his feet, then plummeted in silence to the river far below.
A long-ago conversation trailed through his mind: his father’s voice, describing a friend who had dived from the penthouse suite of a Seattle high-rise. The guy had gone there with a real estate agent as if he were looking to buy the place, making polite conversation throughout the showing, checking the taps, full of jokes about the owner’s choice of flooring and all the mirrors in the master bath. When it came time to leave, the agent glanced back and saw his client’s feet disappear over the railing.
A quick death, according to Julian’s father. From that height it would have been like dropping a water balloon.
Not that it would be that way for Julian. The ravine was not that deep, and the slope dropped off in a series of rocky shelves. There would be no spectacular burst at the end, no terrible, literal emptying of his head. For him it would be more concussive, like a pumpkin tossed down a flight of concrete stairs.
The agent said he’d heard his client laughing, right at the end. Julian could understand the guy’s state of mind. He felt the same giddiness, a lightening of the senses, as if the air itself were pulling him skyward, the pine trees standing like spectators with their arms out ready to clap.
His eye was caught by a yellow wink of light at his wrist. His watch. He imagined his mother, signing for his possessions at the county morgue, finding the watch among them. Knowing or coming to know what it meant.
A dizzying relief poured through him at having remembered in time. He unclasped the band and pulled off the watch. The hands had long since stopped turning. A diamond had come loose from the face and rattled around behind the glass like the bead in a Cracker Jack toy. Easing back from the ledge, he wound up and threw the watch as far as it would go. The band turned itself inside out as it went, flashing and wriggling in the air. It sailed across the ravine and disappeared into the scrub on the other side.
His arm seemed lighter without it. A faint stripe showed at his wrist, the skin there tender and pale where the sun hadn’t reached and where the dark hair of his forearm had worn away. Strange to think how much the watch had meant to him once. The heft of it, the shine. How was it that he’d never realized how heavy the thing was? For the first time in years, he felt the weight of both arms equally, one no lighter than the other, neither side dragging him down.
A fine feeling, balance. He wished he’d tried it sooner.
He steadied himself with one hand around the branch overhead. The rough bark was gummed with sap, releasing the astringent scent of pine into the morning air. To his right, at the tip of a crescent-shaped shelf of rock, a veil of white smoke lifted into the sky. Through the haze he could see the skeletal outline of the Blackbird Hotel. Its spine and ribs stood in jagged black lines against the sky, and at the far end, the old stone chimney teetered unsupported, leaking smoke from both ends. As he watched, an arc of water rose over the ruins, undulating gently as the fire hose swept back and forth. A subtle rainbow formed in the mist, appearing from the ground, then fading, unfinished, just before the apex.
He raised his eyes and looked out the mouth of the ravine, past the smoldering hotel to the bank of the mountain range beyond. Wide swaths of the hillside had been cleared and were thick with late summer grass that gleamed in the sunshine like new-fallen snow. The lifts were still now, spidery black cables trailing post to post up the hill in shallow arcs, the chairs swaying gently in the breeze. He imagined himself hurtling downward, the air whistling in his ears, the far-off roar of the crowd tugging at the tips of his skis. A rise in the snow, liftoff, his body tucked up tight as the chatter of the skis was silenced.
It had been years since he’d felt the wind that way, self-generated, in evidence of his own physical power. Already he could feel his body weight, the inexorable tug of gravity against the soles of his feet, the mindless acceleration. He wondered whether his father’s friend had laughed all the way down for the sheer joy of falling.
The note fluttered in his hand as if calling for attention.
He let it slip from his fingers. The paper drifted down and caught on a thorny bush, opening and closing in the breeze like the beak of a duck. He could see the words inside—I know what you did—abruptly superimposed with the memory of Eric’s voice in that dead-on mimic, quacking like Donald Duck.
Julian laughed, a wide, billowing sound that swelled around his ears and made him sway on his perch like a bird in high wind. The wave of hilarity lifted him to his toes, drew his head and shoulders steadily back. But once started, the laughter wouldn’t stop. It began to grind through his torso, shred his throat, until he was drawn stiff as a bow on the edge of the ravine and racked with pain. He loosened his grip on the branch and opened his hand, let the bark scrape over his palm and all the way down his fingers. Then he let go.
His hands filled with air, a gentle kiss over the sting.
How she would love to see him now.
ONE DAY EARLIER
THE TOWN OF Jawbone Ridge started life around a copper mine. No more than a diggers’ camp at first, a ramshackle collection of pine-log boxes that flanked the road, which snaked through the treacherous San Juan Mountains to feed the community and shift the copper ore. The camp was soon fortified by a mercantile and a saloon, legitimized by two brick hotels and a post office, and for a time the people thrived. But eventually the price of copper plummeted and the miners moved on, leaving the hollowed-out detritus behind them.
The slope was steep on that side of Deer Creek, and a century’s worth of Colorado snow had exhausted the town, which was gradually losing its grip on the mountainside, collapsing down the embankment to the riverbed below. The surviving buildings had gone swaybacked and frail, propped up on nests of two-by-fours and tied to the trees around them like elderly relatives on life support.
The slow spectacle was a draw for visitors to nearby Telluride, who skied in to the Ridge for lunch and dumbstruck pictures—Can you even believe this place is still standing?—and returned along the network of ski lifts to the cloud-laced peak, then down again on Telluride’s side of the mountain, trailing perhaps a new set of poles or a scarf with the town’s tagline in bloodred letters, listing sideways as if toppling down the fleece: The Crookedest Town in the West.
It was a living. Barely. A few overbuilt homes were nestled among the aspen, the ultimate in inaccessibility, but for the most part the charm of Jawbone Ridge was lost on the masses. The town’s precarious situation made visitors uneasy and anxious to get away. The ground there felt uncertain, and the year-round residents had a strange way of moving, never stepping too hard on the frozen ground, their eyes sliding warily uphill as if waiting for the mountain to let go and finally finish them off.
At the far end of town, the road curved sharply along the edge of the ravine, then split off and turned abruptly uphill. The windshield of Julian’s car filled for a moment with pine boughs against a flat blue sky—then, as the road leveled off, the scene was replaced as if by magic with the roof, walls, windows and doors of a dark, narrow building.
Julian turned the car aside on the gravel lot and killed the engine.
Next to him, a woman’s voice filtered back into his mind.
“…two years ago. And it was beautiful weather. We didn’t even want to stop. We were the last ones on the gondola, and by the time we got to the top I had to pee so bad I didn’t think I’d make it to the bathroom.”
Emma giggled, a soft purring sound. She stretched widely, seeming to notice for the first time that they had arrived. She pressed her hand to the window, fingers spread like a spindly starfish.
“What is this place?” she said.
After the blocky cabins and rugged lines of Jawbone Ridge, the hotel next to them was strangely proportioned, crouching on the edge of the ravine as if driven there by the cluster of buildings below. A tall, crooked little place, with two steep arches flanking the portico and a roof like a hat smashed down over the top. The age-blackened walls imposed a sort of gravitas, and the leaded windows a sense of romance, but the hotel gave Julian the impression of a child at the edge of the playground who has not been asked to play.
Dark, neglected, unloved and unremembered.
No. Not true. Celia had loved the Blackbird. And Julian sure as hell remembered.