Behind the Book
If I have one great passion (obsession?) in life, it’s rock climbing. So, not surprisingly, I’d pitched a book with a rock climber as a character for my second novel, but was told that no one wanted to read about climbers. It was a whole new world on book three, though. John Krakauer had published Into Thin Air and now my editor was pretty much insisting my next book have a climber in it.
There was one problem, though. Climbing just isn’t that interesting from a spectator’s point of view. Even I only watch climbers on TV if they’re friends of mine—and then only if the show is short. What I wanted to do was use climbing to set a scene. Free Fall is actually about a crooked presidential election and I wanted to contrast the simple lifestyle of climbers with the power-hungry existence of the Washington Elite, as well as with my iconoclastic lead character, Mark Beamon.
This concept led to one of my favorite characters, the world class female climber and pop philosopher Darby Moore. It also created an interesting clash of worlds. Putting a climber who happily lives for an entire year on less than two thousand dollars with a bunch of button-down politicians and FBI agents turned out to be a lot of fun.
The book is also meant to be a warning. As the world gets smaller and more homogenous, and the media becomes increasingly pervasive, we need to be careful to look beneath the veneer of what’s being pitched to us. Sometimes I wonder if America is slowly turning from a democracy to an oligarchy. Is our future going to be controlled by entrenched political dynasties with names like Kennedy and Bush? Or perhaps even worse, by a bunch of actors who have the money and publicity skills to get votes? I wonder.
“Hello, young lady,” the man said. He stepped close, breathed in deeply and held it. His head nodded forward and he raised it slowly, carefully inspecting the black sandals on her feet, the deep brown of her legs, her green cotton shorts, her white T-shirt. Only then did he exhale. His breath didn’t smell like anything.
“We have some questions we want to ask,” he said, tilting his head forward again and focusing on her crotch. “They won’t be hard. No, not hard at all.” The thin red mustache under his nose barely held onto the tiny droplets of clear fluid forming on it as he spoke. Darby wasn’t sure whether they were spit, sweat, or both. All she knew was how this thin, twitchy man made her feel. She had to fight to resist the urge to back away from him and tug at her shorts to cover more of her bare legs.
“I think we can get to the bottom of things, don’t you?” he said, stepping in even closer and brushing his chest against hers. For some reason, he tried to make the contact look accidental, a product of his careful examination of the scars that ran along the edges of her nose. She’d noticed him crouch slightly before they’d touched, though, so that their nipples would make contact. His were hard.
He turned briefly toward the man standing behind Tristan, careful to stay as close as possible to her. “Gag him.”
The stocky man didn’t immediately follow the order. “Sir, don’t we want him to ta—”
“Gag him!” His shout was almost as high pitched as a scream. Darby heard Tristan start to struggle again but kept a watchful eye on the man in front of her as he refocused on her crotch. “How close are those other houses?”
His voice was quieter now but thick with excitement. For a moment, she wasn’t sure if he was talking to her or the man she could see out of the corner of her eye yanking Tristan’s head back and forcing his mouth open.
“I don’t know,” was the answer. “A half a mile, maybe.”
“Are they occupied?”
“I don’t know, probably.”
“You don’t know much do you?” the man in front of her said coldly. A sad look crossed his face. “I’m afraid we aren’t going to be able to listen to that beautiful voice of yours either. And it is beautiful isn’t it? Say something. Go ahead. Do it. Say something.”
She hesitated for a moment. “Why don’t you let him go? He doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
The man looked delighted. His thin mustache curved along his upper lip as he smiled, revealing tiny little teeth and finally dislodging a few of those unidentifiable droplets. “He doesn’t? What makes you say that?” There was a playful lilt in his voice that was infinitely more frightening than his angry scream a moment before.
“He doesn’t know anything about the plane,” Darby said, hoping to get things out into the open.
“The plane,” he repeated and turned to the man who was busy securing whatever he had stuffed in Tristan’s mouth. “Isn’t she precious?” He looked over at the old bed in the corner. “Tie her down on that—no wait. Wait. We need something to cover it. I have a blanket in my car. That will do. Yes, that will do.”
Darby was too focused on his face as he stepped back to notice his hand coming up between her legs. He pinched her there—hard—and she yelped at the sudden pain and jumped back. The man who had finished gagging Tristan ran forward and got between them as Darby closed her right hand into a fist and started pulling it back.
“Yes, we’ll need that blanket. We’ll need it,” he said, hiding behind his much larger associate and walking backward toward the door. Darby made a move to get around the bigger man but he held an arm out and stopped her. She watched through her anger as the red-haired man continued backward toward the door, registering that her fury just seemed to excite him further. It was clear through his slacks that it wasn’t only his nipples that were hard.
“Can I get anyone anything?” he said as he reached behind him and opened the door. “A glass of water perhaps? I believe we may be here for a while.”
As he disappeared though the door and closed it behind him, Darby saw the horror on the face of the young man standing guard near the wall. For the first time, their eyes connected. She couldn’t find any cruelty or hardness there in the brief moment before he turned away. In fact, he looked closer to panic than she was.
The door clicked shut and the man in front of her closed his thick fingers around her shoulder, shoving her hard in the direction of the bed.
What was happening? Suddenly the theory that had brought some small bit of reality to this situation started to slip away. Why would anybody care this much about an old Air America plane? Could it have been something else she’d seen but hadn’t registered? In the former Soviet Union? Cambodia? Afghanistan? Was it all a mistake?
The man pushed her again, and she looked behind her at the bed. The bright colors of the quilt seemed to burn through the thoughts clogging her mind, leaving the image of her tied helplessly to the head- and foot-boards, and that odorless little man free to do whatever he wanted to her. That wasn’t the way she was supposed to die.
She allowed herself to be pushed back another foot or so, feigning a loss of balance and adding a short whimper of fear. She looked over at Tristan for a moment—he was fighting against the ropes that bound him so hard that the chair was coming fully off the floor. Then she shot her hands out and wrapped them around the thick neck of the man in front of her.
Darby had the unusual ability to support her entire body weight with any one of her fingers. When all ten suddenly dug into the skin and muscle of the man’s neck, he gagged with enough force to cause spit to fly from his mouth. They both froze for a split-second, him from surprise and the sudden interruption of blood flow to his brain, and her because she had never hurt anyone before in her life.
Out of sheer necessity, she was able to defeat her uncertainty first and drop backward, pulling him toward her and simultaneously kicking at one of his legs.
When her back hit the floor, she instantly started to roll left to avoid having the man come down on top of her. She was about halfway clear when she heard the sound of shattering glass and felt the man’s body arrested in mid-air.
She didn’t know what had happened and didn’t look back as she jumped to her feet and sprinted at the young man guarding the door.
She could see that his hand was already inside his jacket, and by the time she had covered half the room, his gun was leveled at her face. It seemed like she could feel every fiber of every muscle in her thighs as she launched herself forward, trying to cover that last ten feet before he could move his index finger a quarter of an inch. It was hopeless. She already knew that.
He sidestepped her easily and she hit the wall, landing hard on the wood floor. The gun was aimed at her chest now and she could see the man’s finger tightening on the trigger.
A deep calm washed over her as, for the fourth time in her life, she found herself seriously considering what death would be like. She let her eyes close and waited for the crack of the gun and the pain of the bullet hitting her chest.
There was nothing, though. No gunshot, no sound of the man she’d knocked down getting to his feet and running across the room at her. Nothing.
When she opened her eyes again, probably less than a second later, the younger man was still hovering over her. His finger was still tight across the trigger, but he wasn’t moving.
It was Tristan’s voice. He’d managed to spit out most of the gag in his mouth and was shouting around it.
She shook her head, trying to clear it. She was still alive.
She could hear it now. Footsteps pounding up the stairs on the other side of the wooden door. She shot the man hovering over her a quick glance, then rolled over and threw herself at the door. Her hand slammed against the knob and pressed the lock button just as the weight of a human body hit the other side. The violent rattling of the knob and doorframe mixed with muffled shouts and the pounding of fists against wood.
Darby flipped around and was about to run to Tristan when she saw the man she had fought with lying on the floor by the bed. His hands were wrapped around his neck and blood was spurting between his fingers with the rhythm of his heartbeat. Around him, the old curtains billowed in the cool breeze coming through the window his head had gone through. They were edged with red and made a sickening slapping sound every time they hit the wall.
“Darby! DARBY! For God’s sake!”
She looked over at Tristan who was still thrashing wildly in his chair and then back at the man on the floor. Could the bleeding be stopped? She hadn’t meant…
No. His life was gone. She’d killed him.
Darby forced that thought from her mind as she ran to Tristan and unbuckled the canvas shackles around his wrists. He jumped out of the chair the moment he was free but didn’t seem to know what to do next. They both looked up at the young man standing against the wall. His gun was hanging loosely from his hand.
“I’m not a killer,” he said over the desperate pounding and shouting coming from the other side of the door. He seemed reasonably convinced but not entirely certain.
“We’ve got to go, Tristan,” Darby said, grabbing him by the arm and dragging him toward the window before the young man could rethink his value system. She tried to ignore the feeling of warm blood splashing over her open sandals as she pushed the remaining glass from the broken pane and followed Tristan out onto the roof. They stood on the edge of it for a moment, looking down at the ten-foot drop into a gravel side yard. Darby looked at Tristan’s bare feet and then behind her through the window. The man who had let them go was moving toward them and his gun was no longer hanging limp from his hand. It was aimed directly at them.
She grabbed hold of Tristan and pulled him off the roof with her just as the first shot sounded. She heard him grunt in pain as they hit the ground but she ignored it, rolling to her feet and dragging him up with her. “No time to complain, Twist! Come on!”
She heard the second shot ring out as they ran desperately toward a densely wooded butte two hundred yards away. She looked back at the window just before the third shot and realized that the man wasn’t aiming anywhere near them. It was a show for the benefit of his colleagues.
“Come ON!” she said again. Her fingers dug deep into his bicep as she pulled him along behind.
She heard shouts that sounded like they were coming from outside the house but didn’t look back again. All they had to do was make the trees, then they could take the steepest line up the butte. No fat, suit wearing, old man was going to be able to keep up with her there—even if she had to carry Tristan on her back.