Through the evacuated harbor town, mountain guide Lee Suriah rushed from guide office to guide office, desperate to recruit help. His quick footsteps echoed off narrow brick roads and cozy buildings, shuttered and dark, shingles dripping from a recent sun shower.
Rounding a corner, he broke into a walk and fumbled to a stop, almost slipping in a puddle. The boarded windows of the Blue Summit Guide Office dropped his stomach through the ground.
Lifting arms, he grabbed his head, panting. “This is the last office.” This can’t be the last one. He cast a glance up and down the street to find every last pane of glass shuttered, boarded, or both. I didn’t think they’d clear out so fast.
“Can I help you find something?”
Behind him, a man lingered on the curb with large burlap sacks over his shoulder. If not for his painfully ordinary attire including worn indoor footwear and a curious, albeit blank expression, Lee would’ve suspected him of being a looter.
“Are any of the guide offices still open?” said Lee. “It’s an emergency.”
The man smiled like a soulless receptionist. “One is. This way.”
He led the way to a modest storefront adorned with the painted blue-and-white words ‘Moss Guides: Hunting, Mountain, Fishing, Adventure.’ Upon first glimpse of the sign, Lee blurted a curse that surprised his unenthusiastic escort, for which he quickly apologized, and then thanked the man before flying through the front door.
Fliers, posters and pamphlets about fish species and sightseeing lined shelves and bulletin boards along the walls leading to an old counter.
He said he’d never move back here, this bastard, thought Lee, cringing. Then again I can’t do this alone. Brushing aside nostalgia brought on by the subtle scent of antique wood, Lee crossed to the counter and hit the bell. I don’t care if it’s him.
From the office door on the right emerged a familiar face. A less offensive, prettier face than he’d expected. He blinked. “Aunt Allison.”
Allison Moss. Not Lee’s aunt, the owner’s. “Lee! Look at you!” Beaming like a proud mother, she came around the counter for a hug that’d make a bear jealous. “I haven’t seen you since you and Rory tried to kill each other with ice axes!”
“Yes, ma’am.” I need to get to the point. “My nephew, Lewis, went to Manago Valley as a teacher with a humanitarian outfit and I wanna pull him out before the fighting gets there…”
Armed conflict had spilled into the Black Crystal Mountains, the range within view of the harbor town, from the neighboring region where the government had been overthrown and several armed factions vied for control. No one had believed Black Crystal, a popular outdoor adventure destination, would ever really be affected. Not until the distant clap of gunshots became more and more frequent, too close and out of season.
“But the guys with my guide company are either laid up with that virus or with injuries from our last hiking tour. We’d… gotten caught in some cross fire.” Which is why my and all the other guide companies, and everyone, have cleared out. “I know it’s dangerous and probably too much to ask -“
“When Lewis was a baby, his cheeks were so big he couldn’t open his eyes and smile at the same time. I bet he’s a lady killer now.” She grinned, years of experience as a special ops commander gleaming in her eyes. “Don’t gimme that face, he’s family. Let’s do it.” Moving behind the counter, she shouted at the office’s tapped door, “Jane! Kelsey! Rory’s former best friend is here with a job! We’re goin’ out!”
A younger version of Allison peeked out of the office, eyes shining. “LEE!”
Kelsey. Holy smokes. Lee smiled as she raced around the counter like a puppy on hardwood and pummeled him with the same warmth as her mother.
A third lady exited the office. Jane — Rory’s older sister and, in his opinion, the humblest and most badass tracker he’d ever met who could just as easily hunt down a deer’s ghost as knit sweaters for an army — waved and smiled in passing as she followed Allison down a back hallway to prepare for the trek.
I’m getting the whole family. Reassurance calmed his raging anxiety to a nagging whisper. Now if we could take Rory’s skills without taking Rory, it’d be perfect.
Arms around his ribs, Kelsey’s bright green eyes turned upward, her chin digging into his chest. “All the guys left last week and Rory ‘ll be back tomorrow, so it’s just us right now.” At his look, she added, “He’s at the cape helping Mr. Sommer pack his house into his fishing boat. We’ll leave a note so he can catch up.”
Lee hesitated. The Moss Guide’s house rule for search and rescue gigs is for guides to go out in a 4-man team. “Can a client count as the fourth?” They have the rule of 4 for a reason. It’s a safety thing.
“We’ll take Kipp.” Stepping back, she looked toward the front door where the man with he bags sat on a rickety chair, flipping through a small notebook. “Right, Kipp?”
The man read, blatantly avoiding eye contact with her.
He came in behind me? Frowning, Lee lowered his voice. “Is he a guide?”
“He’s Rory’s new best friend, since you left. He doesn’t look like much but….” She lowered her voice, too. “Three years ago, when Rory’s group was captured and held in that prison camp in Saffeaur, Kipp single-handedly broke them out, blew up the armory, and then burned everything down. He even managed to roll the camp’s two armored vehicles off a cliff into the ocean!”
Lee stared, hardly sure whether to be impressed or perturbed.
Studying Kipp, she smiled with a lovesick sigh. “He’s so awkward and adorable,” she said. “I’m gonna marry him but he doesn’t know it yet.”
Allison appeared in the hallway. “Hey, Doc, we need a fourth. You in?”
Kipp looked up. “Yes, of course.”
About to return to packing, Allison paused. “Oh, Lee, meet our fourth. Dr. Kipp Colditz. He knows who you are from Rory but don’t worry, he likes pretty much everyone. Isn’t that right, Doc?” She vanished into the back.
To the nod and hello from Lee, the oddly smooth skin about Dr. Colditz’s eyes crinkled mildly like one unaccustomed to smiling.