The sound echoed in my mind as I skated my skis forward, following the track Ferris laid down a few feet ahead of me. Above me, a cornflower-hued sky with nary a trace of clouds stretched endlessly over the Sierra Mountains. I took a deep breath, drawing in the crisp, fresh air. Ahead of me, Ferris’ skis cut through the light layer of ice with a sharp swoosh that coincided with mine.
I hadn’t done any cross-country skiing in many years. I never excelled at it, but at least I could stay on my feet, which is more than I could say for attempting downhill. You’d think, growing up in the Reno area, that I would be better at winter sports than I was. I excelled as the failure when the school trips went to the slopes, falling over backward, and going down the bunny hill the wrong way. At least with cross-country, it didn’t require downward gravity to manage and most of the slopes were gentle enough that I didn’t have to actually do much skiing. Mostly, I shushed the skis in a sawing motion to keep moving.
I raised my eyes to glimpse Ferris and grinned. Although he was way better than I was, he stayed right with me rather than taking off for a quicker pace.
In fact, he’d been staying pretty close to me for the past few weeks. Ever since the run-in with the shades at the ethereal cemetery had nearly turned into a disaster for me and Nygard, my Himalayan cat, Ferris had been visiting me frequently.
I’d almost lost my furry buddy that day, and it had shaken me to the core. I felt like it was my fault Nygard had transitioned to the next plane to attempt to protect me. Somehow, we’d formed a link and he thought he could help. Instead, the shade had propelled him across the field, nearly killing him. When I’d returned to the Earth plane, I had been frantic, even fainting at the church where I’d been singing. Shoving all help aside, I’d hurried home to find Nygard lying in a limp, unconscious heap on my bedroom floor.
As I’d rushed him to the animal hospital, I’d called Ferris who had met me there. He’d been my rock. Of all my friends, he was the one who had taken care of Nygard anytime I went out of town and the cat always cuddled up to him. Since then, we’d started doing a few things together. Like this trip to the Meadows to ski.
I twisted my head left to where the line of trees edged the open area and looked for the pathway that cut through them, vaguely remembering a hiking route seen in summer. A flash of reflected light caught my eye and I squinted to see what might have caused it. Something poked up through the snow, a metal pole or a similar object. I slowed, coming to a halt to stare at it. Why would a pole be out here along the edge? A few feet ahead of me, Ferris noticed I’d stopped and swung around to see why.
He pushed his skis back and snowplowed to a stop.
“What’s up? Is something wrong?” he asked, digging his poles into the snow.
“I got a glimpse of something just inside the tree line. There.” I pointed toward the area with my left pole.
He turned his head to look, craning his neck. “I don’t see anything… Wait! Now I see it. Let’s go check it out.”
He shoved off to the side and I followed, placing my skis in his trails to make the going easier. He covered the ground in only a few minutes. Moving slower, I came puffing in a bit behind him. He planted his poles and stared at the object sticking out of a snowbank. A metal runner jutted out of the snow at an angle.
“That’s weird.” I stopped next to him, looking at the seven or so inches of metal. Whatever it was attached to lay buried below the white surface.
Ferris’ face wore a frown as he released his skis and stepped toward the buried object. He used his gloved hands to dig around the runner, revealing more of it and the connection to the machine below it. “It’s on its side,” he muttered and began digging harder.
I stepped out of my ski bindings, sinking a few inches into the snow as I made my way to join him. Together, we hand-dug the icy stuff away until we cleared the underside of a navy-colored snowmobile.
Ferris straightened up, his frown deeper as concern showed in his eyes. “I think we should call nine-one-one. This has been here for a while. Maybe it was just abandoned, but it seems someone would have dug it out by now.”
“What if there’s someone in it?” My eyes locked on the vehicle and an uneasy feeling touched me. Could someone have been in it when it flipped over and been injured, unable to get out? “Shouldn’t we keep digging?”
Ferris had his cell phone out and was punching buttons already. I continued to wipe away at the snow as he told the emergency operator what we’d found and where we were.
“Leave it,” he said, catching my arm. Already my gloves were covered with ice crystals and it was getting harder to dig in the snow. “If someone is still in it, it’s too late for them. This happened days ago before this last big snow came through.”
“Well, damn. It just feels like we should be doing something.”
He nodded. “We are. We’re waiting for a sheriff’s deputy or emergency services to get here. They’ll have the equipment to get it out and deal with anyone who might have been in it. There’s nothing we can do.”
He was right, of course, but I didn’t feel any better about it.
“Hey, babe, maybe the snowmobile flipped over and whoever was in it couldn’t get it upright and walked out back to the road. He probably figured he’d come back when the snow melted with some with help to get it out.”
“Maybe,” I agreed. “But wouldn’t he have reported it to the police?”
“Not necessarily. Not if he figured it wasn’t a nuisance or an accident involving anyone else.”
Ferris pulled me toward the trees a little more, getting us out of the sun. I pivoted to gaze back across the meadow toward the highway. It seemed like we’d come a long way in, but the road remained easily visible. We’d only covered about a half-mile.
“Boy, am I out of shape or what?” I complained. “My legs are already hurting.”
He laughed. “Not out of shape, just not used to the skiing. Different muscles from your running ones. Are you still doing the judo classes?”
“Not judo. Kenpo, a style of Karate. I’m trying to learn as many physical moves as I can.”
“Will they help against those ghoulish things you were fighting?” The serious tone in his voice told me he was worried about what I was doing.
But I knew that. I hadn’t sung at a funeral since the one for Saffi Alden where everything had gone awry. I didn’t plan to unless I had a better game plan and I was working on that with Gavin Haines, my mentor and friend. Problem was, we didn’t know how to defeat the supernatural creatures. They were denizens of another plane of existence and not even the common ground of the ethereal graveyard. Like me, they came there to find spirits on their way to the next plane, but they weren’t there to escort them, but to try to take their souls.
I shrugged. “Maybe. But not enough.”
I needed more than physical strength to fight them. I needed to control my light blast, a supernatural talent I had acquired at some unknown point, that could affect them. Here’s the rub: I didn’t know exactly how it worked or what its capabilities were. I thought it might be a pretty powerful weapon if I could just figure out what I was doing with it. Gavin had some ideas and he was researching them. It all took time.
Ferris pulled a thermos out of his backpack and removed the lid, then poured hot chocolate into it. “Here, have a warming drink. Now that we’re not moving, it’s getting kind of chilly out here.”
I accepted it and sipped, happy for the rush of warmth, while he pulled out a small cup and filled it. Judging from the tingling burn, I figured Ferris might have spiked it a bit. “Trying to get me tipsy so you can have your way with me?”
“Naw. I know you can’t handle your liquor, woman, and I wouldn’t want to carry you back to the van.” He took a gulp from his cup.
Ferris had been making advances toward a closer relationship with me for the past few weeks. Since Roger’s engagement party, actually. We’d dated briefly in college, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to get back into that kind of relationship with him. We were good friends, like family really, and I didn’t want to risk losing that connection with him if it didn’t work out.
Gradually, I’d been seeing him differently though and realizing how much he meant to me. He and Digby always had my back, but Dig had a relationship and I was more like a sister to him. While Ferris—now that I thought about it—hadn’t really gone with anyone for the past few years. Maybe a date here and there, but nothing that lasted more than one or two times.
Right now, everything seemed complicated. I had a consuming problem with the shades and all my energy seemed to be spent in trying to figure out a way to beat them. While I’d found Gavin Haines, my old archeology professor, to be an asset and the only other person I knew who had encountered the otherworldly ghouls, he didn’t exactly know how to combat them either, so the two of us were stumbling along together. Gavin’s encounters had all been on the Earth plane while mine had mostly been on the next level until recently.
“Hey, you’re getting too serious,” Ferris teased.
My eyes shifted back to the covered snowmobile and I lifted my eyebrows. “Really?”
“Yeah, it’s a downer, but I think you’re worrying for nothing.”
“You’re probably right. It just seems like I’m finding trouble all the time now.”
“Am I trouble?” His face grew serious as he asked.
“All the time,” I laughed as I punched his arm. He pulled back, reached for a handful of snow, compressed it, and tossed it at me. I ducked at the last second, but still got a spray of it as it hit the side of my head.
“The war is on, mister.” I retaliated with a poorly rolled ball as he stepped away quickly and bent to get more ammunition.
Soon, we had a full-on snowball fight going with both of us ducking and trying to run in the snow. While the surface was firm, our feet still sank into it several inches making a swift retreat impossible. After a few exchanges that were getting sloppier and sloppier, I slipped and went down into the bank, laughing at the sheer joy of just being a kid again.
Ferris dropped down beside me, breathing hard from the exertion. A big grin covered his face and his eyes sparkled. I laid back in the snow and gazed up at the sky as he stretched beside me and slid his arm under my shoulders wrapping it around them.
“That was fun,” he breathed. “More work than I remember a snowball fight being.”
“I haven’t done that in years.” I sounded breathless and gasped for air. “It was fun.” His face nuzzled against my throat, his warm breath sending a shiver down my body and sparking warmth within me. No, I didn’t want this. At least, not yet. I pushed myself up to sit and gazed out toward the highway.
About that time, a truck pulled up and stopped near Ferris’ van. Squinting, I could just make out the light bar across the top.
“Sheriff’s here,” I said, tipping my head toward the road.
Ferris glanced at his watch. “They made good time.”
As we watched, an officer got out, opened the back gate, and lowered a snowmobile to the ground. It wouldn’t take him long to get to us. I glanced back at the bank of snow with the partially covered snowmobile in it as if it might have changed while we waited. Not even any hint of snowmelt seemed to have occurred.
By the time the officer reached us, we’d finished our cocoa and Ferris had put the thermos away. Now, he stepped forward to greet the deputy, who identified himself as Deputy Bancroft from the Incline Sheriff’s Office. Ferris told him what I’d seen and we’d come over to investigate.
“It’s probably nothing,” Ferris said. “We just thought we should report it in case someone crashed.”
The officer flashed a brief smile. “Better to be safe. I’ll check it out from here. But I’ll need your contact information in case I need to ask any follow-up questions.”
We gave him our names, addresses, and contact phones, which he entered in his tablet, then he told us we could go. I frowned as it occurred to me that this was under Washoe County and my name was going on another report. Detective Moss would probably hit the ceiling and spin if he saw it. He already thought I couldn’t stay out of trouble and maybe he was right. It seemed to find me. I cast another unsettled look at the trapped snowmobile and sighed. Probably, this was nothing. Just an abandoned vehicle.
With the sun slipping lower, the shadows began to grow on the once sunlit meadow as Ferris and I prepared to trudge back to the car. Now that we’d quit moving, my thighs and calves complained about the unusual activity of the day. I snapped my boots back onto my skis and shoved off to follow Ferris. Even following in his path, I lagged quite a bit behind him. At the edge of the meadow, a shallow incline required more effort than I had energy left to get up it forcing him to climb part-way down and pull me the rest of the way.
Lurching over the top bump, I slipped toward him as an ankle gave out. Instantly, his arms wrapped around me and we wobbled a bit before he steadied me on the edge of the pavement. I rested my head against his chest, glad for the extra support. A scent of pine, sweat, and bourbon wafted to my nose and I breathed it in, liking the combination. Reluctantly, I forced myself to move, reached down, and released the bindings.
We loaded up the skis in the back of the van and I climbed into the passenger side, my eyes returning to the far left of the meadow where I could just make out the tiny figure of the deputy doing something around the buried snowmobile. I looked for an indication of a shadow that shouldn’t be there, but I didn’t see anything other than the normal ones from the trees and the officer.
In spite of Bancroft’s reassuring words, a lingering feeling of something unsettling touched me. Something I couldn’t put a name to and I feared what it could be.