“Are we still on Earth?” Arly said.
“You’re not serious?” Pete said. He sounded freaked out, moreso than Arly could remember hearing as long as she’d known him.
Saint, on the other hand, seemed amused by it all. “We’re breathin’ the air alright.”
The elevator door had slid open and they’d stepped out into darkness. Not true darkness, but a dim twilight; there might have been a sun in the sky, it might have been daytime, but a thick canopy of purplish clouds made it impossible to tell and painted everything in strange, fantasyland hues. They stood on a rocky ledge some ten feet wide. Behind them, the wall of the mountain formed a shallow pocket, a recess in which the elevator door stood all but hidden in the concealment of shadows. Above them, the mountain disappeared into the heights at a steep incline. The ledge on which they stood continued to their right and, growing more narrow as it hugged the mountainside, to their left.
“It’s cold!” Arly said, hugging herself.
“It’s the middle of summer, for godsakes!” Pete said.
“It’s not summertime here,” Saint said. He spoke the truth. Tiny snowflakes drifted down from the purple sky, dancing in the air, and fog clung in spots to the cliffside like strips of frayed cotton.
“There’s a body down there!” Garrett Roth had been down on his knees, peering over the cliff’s edge.
They all stepped up to the ledge. Pete took Arly’s arm and pulled her back a little. A frozen slush had started to accumulate on the ledge, making it slippery.
“I don’t see anything,” Arly said.
“There!” Roth pointed. “See? Dear Lord, that could be Kiersten!”
Saint said something in French. Arly couldn’t understand him but she judged by his tone and inflection that they were curse words.
“Almost straight down,” he said. “We don’ have enough rope for that. I’m gon’ have ta’ wing it.”
“You’re climbing down?” Arly asked.
“Somebody has to, I reckon. An’ I’m the only one who can do it an’ not get his fool self killed. Y’all stay put,” Saint said. “Stay under the overhang, there. It’ll keep you out of the wind. This is gon’ take me a while.”
“You’re not gonna climb down without rope?” Arly said.
Saint looked at her with a smile. “No worries, petite. I’ve done this before.” He bent over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “But it’s sweet that you’re worried.” Then he slipped out of his backpack, handed Roth the rifle—”Here, hold this, boss.”—and lowered himself over the side. Arly stopped herself from calling after him.
“Come on, Governor.” Pete helped the older man to his feet and back into the shelter of the recess, helped him out of his backpack.
“Dear God, please don’t let that be Kiersten down there!” Roth blubbered.
“I’m sure it’s not her,” Arly said, slipping off her own gear.
Pete dropped down, using his backpack as a seat. “This is insane,” he muttered.
Arly sat on her backpack, too. Not the softest of seats, but better than the ground, she figured. “Pete, do you think, what Beau said about parallel realities is true?”
“I’m certain he’s right,” Pete snapped. “It’s obvious *Beau* can do no wrong.”
“I can’t believe you sometimes!” Pete said. “I mean, we talked about this, didn’t we?”
“Okay, I get that you’re focusing on this to avoid having to deal with the fact that we may very well have just crossed over into some other dimension or traveled through time, but come on.”
“A parallel dimension might explain your behavior.”
“Stop it, Pete.”
“Both of you stop it!” Roth said. “That could be my granddaughter down there!”
A moment of silence, of gravitas, hung in the air. Nothing except the soft murmur of the falling snow and their breathing.
“God, I’m so sorry, Mr. Roth,” Arly said.
“I’m sure it’s not her,” Pete said. Roth didn’t answer and Pete looked past him at Arly.
“I’m sorry,” she mouthed.
Another awkward moment passed, then: “Hey,” Arly said, “we should check the compass.” She dug hers out of her backpack, flipped open the cover. “Well, at least it’s not spinning. That’s good, right?”
“Maybe it’s broken.” Pete gave her a halfhearted smile to let her know he still loved her, despite her being an idiot in his estimation.
Hugging themselves to stay warm, as their coveralls were not designed for cold weather (Arly had put hers on by this point) they sat for a good while and talked. They contrasted the reality of what they were experiencing with what each of them knew about Science, religion, philosophy; bringing the Bible into it at least drew Roth into the conversation and out of his morose silence. Time, unobserved, slipped past them. None of them heard Saint until he popped up onto the ledge, sweating and puffing, his breath like steam.
“Mr. Saint!” Roth launched to his feet.
“It’s not her, boss,” Saint replied, standing. He dusted his palms on his damp coveralls. “Not unless she turned Chinese on us.”
“Oh, thank God!” Roth raised his hands to the sky in supplication.
“One of the missing girls is Chinese,” Pete said, “isn’t she?”
“Yeah, that’s her down there. I saw her picture in one of the news articles, back before we left. She’s not lookin’ so good right now but she’s still recognizable.”
Arly wanted to hug Saint but she didn’t. I’m glad you’re okay, she thought, hoping he’d pick up on the words by her expression.
Saint sat down with them and drank half a bottle of water.
“Here’s how I see it,” he said. “Ol’ Maka’kahu, he comes ‘cross Jed Patterson’s camp an’ he thinks he’s done hit the jackpot. Plenty a’ food an’ plenty a’ girls. He takes them four girls with him, goes down into his cave an’ through the portal, comes out here, wherever this is. Now the Chinese femme, she must’a gave him trouble, so he jus’ chunked her off the bluff, since he had three spares, non?”
“You believe Kiersten’s still alive?” Roth said.
“Got no reason not to, at this point.”
“What do we do now?” Roth asked.
“That’s a problem. See, none of us is dressed for extreme cold. So we could go back…”
“There’s no time for that!” Roth said.
“Figured you’d say that, boss. I don’ much like the idea a’ givin’ up the chase, myself, now that we’re here.”
“What choice do we have?” Pete asked.
“Reckon we can make do. We each have a change a’ coveralls an’ some undergarments. We just put all of it on at the same time. That should keep us warm enough, I expect.”
“Then that settles it!” Roth announced.
“So what do we do now?” Arly asked.
“I’ve got ta’ pick up the trail,” Saint said. “A literal trail, this time. This here ledge is awful rocky, but there are some muddy patches. Ol’ boy’s gon’ have left some tracks, sure ‘nough, ‘specially with him draggin’ three girls with him. I’ve jus’ got ta’ find those tracks.”
“You didn’t find any tracks or trail back in Georgia,” Pete reminded him.
“Too much foot traffic. All the cops an’ reporters would’a obliterated any sign that was left. But I figure there haven’t been that many people come through here.”
“You think you can locate a trail?” Roth asked.
“I ‘spect so.”
So did Arly. She had to admit, if she were honest with herself, she would have believed Saint capable of doing anything he said he could.
Why do I believe in you? she thought, looking at him.
“…then what?” Roth was saying.
“Then I do what you hired me ta’ do, boss. I’m gon’ kill the beast an’ rescue the princess.” He paused. “Or else it’s gon’ kill me, in which case you’re all gon’ be…”
“As good as dead, too.” Arly finished the sentence for him.
Saint caught her eye, then looked away. “Maybe worse than that,” he said.