There was nothing above him, nothing below.
Just endless, swimming darkness.
Ethan looked up and down again—still nothing.
“Burke! Over here!”
He glanced across the cliff.
There was the light, twenty feet away, but they weren’t climbing anymore. They had somehow moved across the sheer face of the cliff.
“You coming or what?”
Ethan glanced down and saw it: one long step away, a single plank, six inches wide, had been bolted into the rock with a smaller cable running parallel above it.
“Let’s go!” Imming yelled.
Ethan stepped from the foothold, across two feet of emptiness, onto the six-inch plank. It was coated with slush and the back half of his cowboy boots hung off the edge.
He clutched the cable, went to move his right boot, but its smooth sole lost traction on the icy board.
His feet went out from under him.
The scream he heard was his own.
His chest slammed against the rock, one hand barely gripping the cable as his weight tugged him down, the twined metal biting into his fingers.
Imming was shouting at him, but Ethan didn’t comprehend the words.
He was zoned in on the cold, cutting steel as he felt his grip slowly dissolving and his boots beginning to slide off his feet.
He saw himself slipping, imagined the stunning lift in his stomach, his arms and legs flailing. Could there be anything worse than falling in total darkness? At least in the daylight, you’d see the ground rushing up to end you, have a chance, albeit fleeting, to prepare.
He pulled himself up by the cable until his boots touched the plank again.
Leaned into the rock.
“Hey, ass**le! Try not to die, okay?”
The men laughed and their footsteps trailed away.
No time to regroup.
With meticulous sidesteps, he traversed the rock face.
After five minutes of terror, the lantern disappeared around a corner.
Ethan followed, and to his infinite relief, the trail widened.
No more cable or wooden planks.
Now they walked up a gently sloping ledge.
Maybe it was the exhaustion and the fading overload of adrenaline, but Ethan missed the transition entirely.
From outside to in.
The light of the lantern now shone on rock walls all around him, even overhead, and the air had spiked ten degrees.
Their footfalls made an echo.
They moved through a cavern.
Up ahead—a din of voices.
Ethan followed the men to the end of the passage.
The sudden onslaught of light burned his eyes.
His guides walked on, but Ethan stopped at the wide, open door.
Couldn’t quite grasp what he was seeing.
Couldn’t fit it into a previous point of reference.
The room was several thousand square feet—the footprint of a comfortable house. The ceiling dipped low at the corners, vaulted past twenty feet in the center. The rock walls glowed the color of adobe in the abundance of firelight. There were candles everywhere. Torches. Kerosene lamps dangling from wires in the ceiling. It was warm, the heat radiating from a large fireplace in a distant corner—a recess in the room that apparently vented smoke outside. There were people everywhere. Congregating in small groups. Dancing. Sitting in chairs around the fire. Nearby, a trio of musicians played on a makeshift stage—trumpet, stand-up bass, an upright piano that Ethan figured must have been disassembled and hauled up here in pieces. It was Hecter Gaither on the bench, leading the band in some moody jazz thing that would’ve sounded right at home in a club in New York City. Everyone was dressed to the nines in clothes that couldn’t have possibly made the trip Ethan had just endured.
People were smoking.
Talking over the music.
The smell of booze like perfume in the air.
And then Kate was standing in front of him.
She had died her hair back to that java brown, and she wore a black, sleeveless number.
Smiling and the glassiness of liquor glistening in her eyes like tears, she said, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world.” She ran her hand down the left sleeve of his hoodie. “Looks like you had a rough hike in. Let’s get you into something dry.”
She led him through the crowd to the far side of the room. They swung around into an alcove where the clothes the people had worn here hung dripping from wooden racks.
“Forty-two long, right?” she asked.
She showed him to a black suit hanging from the end of a rack filled with dry, pristine formal wear.
“Looks like your old threads, huh? Shoes and socks right over there. Get dressed and come on out.”
“We’ll talk in there.”
She left him.
He stripped out of his hoodie, his undershirt, his damp jeans. There was a bench against the wall and he sat down and pulled off his boots and inspected the incision.
A few of the stitches had popped, but he’d brought along extra gauze and tape.
He wrapped his leg tightly enough to stop the bleeding and used his damp undershirt to clean the line of dried blood that trailed all the way down to his foot.
Walking back into the party, Ethan couldn’t deny that he felt like a brand-new man. There’d been a mirror in the changing room, and he’d combed his wet hair over to the side in the style he’d worn back in his g-man days.
Someone had constructed a bar along one side of the cavern.
Ethan threaded his way toward it through the crowd and installed himself on an open stool.
The bartender wandered over.
White oxford, black tie, black vest.
He threw a cocktail napkin down on the dark, scuffed wood of the bar.
Ethan recognized him from town. They’d never spoken, but he worked the cash register several days a week at the grocery store.
“What’ll it be?” the man asked, no indication that he knew or cared who Ethan was.
“What do you have?” Ethan asked, glancing at the bottles lined up on the wall in front of a mirror. He saw bourbon, scotch, vodka. Brand names he recognized, but they were all nearly empty. Unlabeled bottles of clear liquor seemed to be in ample supply.
The mirror had been framed with dozens of Polaroid photos. One toward the center caught his eye. It was a close-up of Kate and Alyssa, both women dressed like flappers—newsboy caps, bobbed hair, gaudy makeup, and pearls. Their cheeks were pressed together. They looked drunk, in the moment, and irredeemably happy.