PROLOGUE

 

Bettles, Alaska

September 2009

 

Pasha Dunn pressed her face against the window of the Cessna and gazed at the small settlement coming into view, the first sign of civilization she’d seen since they left Fairbanks two hours earlier. The journey over endless stretches of empty swampland, taiga forest, countless lakes, wide river valleys, and snow-peaked mountain ranges had driven home just how isolated her new home north of the Arctic Circle was.

The village of Bettles didn’t look like much from the air, just a scattering of buildings along the Koyukuk River, set in dense green forest. More impressive was its backdrop: the endless Brooks Range, one of North America’s most magnificent and desolate stretches of high mountains.

Of all the places she’d lived, this would certainly qualify as the most unique.

Her friends in Minneapolis had been shocked and dismayed when she decided to move to such an isolated, harsh environment, where temperatures during winter could drop to twenty-below or better and stay there for months. She hadn’t hesitated, however, because her keen sense of intuition had led her here.

The power—as she referred to it—had so far proved infallible, though it had taken her years to fully develop and surrender to her gift. She didn’t consider herself psychic, exactly. She certainly couldn’t produce such feelings at will. But as long as she could remember, she had experienced deep, profound gut feelings about people, places, and circumstances that always panned out. Every job, every major move, everyone she’d ever been close to had prompted that niggling you-can’t-pass-this-up sense that seemed to arise when something of importance presented itself. Similarly, she’d sometimes get an impending sense of doom about someone or something, and she’d follow that intuition, often to find later she’d had good reason for her sinking sense of dread.

The power had last manifested itself a month ago, when she’d spotted an advertisement on a job-hunting Web site. It read, very simply,

 

            Do you have what it takes to live the adventure others only dream of? Eidson Eco-Tours, an adventure outfitter in Alaska, is looking for men and women to serve as wilderness guides and support staff. No experience necessary, but related skills desirable. Must be physically fit, reliable, love nature, and play well with others. Contact Dita Eidson to apply.

 

            Pasha was working at a salon, but she’d felt for months that she needed to move on and begin a new chapter in her life. She was waiting only for that boom of recognition, that pivotal knowing her new direction, which had come when the ad caught her eye. She’d immediately picked up the phone and dialed the contact number, and her feeling of rightness had only intensified when she heard Dita Eidson’s soft Southern drawl.

Now she was here, anxious and excited to begin her new job as an outfitter’s assistant.  Dita had explained that her duties initially would involve booking clients, packing for trips, running errands, and in general being her go-to gal. Since the winter months were slow, she’d spend much of her time training with some of the seasoned guides, learning all the skills she’d need to be out in the field with clients—first aid, cooking, safety, survival, and so on.

If she took to the job and did well her first summer season, Dita promised, she’d become a junior guide the next year. 

The plane set down on the village’s short, single runway and taxied to a stop near what passed as the control tower—a small cabin whose sign read Bettles FAA Station. As the pilot—a middle-aged bearded guy who’d introduced himself as Skeeter—unloaded her bags, she asked directions to the Eidson Eco-Tours office.

“Easy breezy,” he said, blowing smoke from the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “Follow that gravel strip there two blocks, hang a right, and you’re there. Can’t miss it.”

“Thanks.”

Pasha hefted her pack onto her back and pulled up the handle of her big rolling suitcase before setting off. She passed an enormous log structure at the edge of the tarmac that looked to be one of the more popular places in the village, judging by the handful of lunchtime patrons. The sign above the door read The Den. She’d have to check it out once she got settled.

The Eidson Eco-Tours office was a two-story wood structure with a wide porch dotted with wicker rockers and massive caribou antlers over the door. When she went inside, a tiny bell above her jangled. She found herself in a cozy waiting area, with couches and chairs, a TV, and walls adorned with framed photographs and native art.

A petite woman in her early fifties, with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and wire-rimmed glasses, emerged from a room in the back. She glanced from Pasha to her overstuffed backpack and large suitcase and smiled. “I bet you’re Pasha, aren’t you?” she asked with a soft Southern drawl as she headed toward her. “Welcome to Bettles.”

“I am. And I recognize that voice. Dita, right?”

“None other. Pleased to meet you,” Dita said, offering her hand.

“Likewise. I’m excited to be here.”

As they shook hands, a faint rainbow-colored aura shimmered briefly around Dita’s body. Pasha grinned. Auras were one of her power’s most valuable manifestations, because they only appeared around people who would become her cherished friends.

The excellent omen confirmed that she’d made the right decision.

 

#

 

Sofia, Bulgaria

Same Day

 

            Emery Lawson raised her first-class seat to its upright position and glanced out the window at the city coming into view. The gilded dome of a cathedral glinted distantly in the noonday sun, golden treasure in a sea of terra-cotta rooftops. Checking her watch, she calculated she’d have roughly ninety minutes after she completed her mission before she had to return to the airport. Better than some jobs, but still never enough to soothe the wanderlust that had been with her since birth and grew exponentially with each passing day. Her career had become a relentless tease, offering her only glimpses of the life she’d always imagined.

            As usual, she traveled light, so she was able to bypass baggage claim. Her small backpack contained only a change of clothes, toiletries, a couple of PowerBars, and her iPhone, loaded with dozens of e-books, hundreds of her favorite tunes, and several translation, navigation, and tourism apps. This trip she also carried a hard briefcase, loaded with the confidential documents she’d been contracted to deliver by one p.m. After a brief stop at the currency exchange for some levs, she hailed a taxi and headed to meet her contact.

Sofia resembled many other European cities she’d visited, with its vivid flower stalls, fountains, crowded cafes, Gothic churches, and abundance of bicycles and mopeds. Unique were the distinctive yellow Viennese cobblestone streets in the city center and the completely indecipherable signage. For more than two decades, Emery had spent much of her time in airports and on airplanes listening to language tapes, so she had a reasonable command of basic French, Spanish, German, Dutch, and Italian. And she could get by well enough in a half dozen more dialects, not that she’d had nearly enough opportunities to use all she had studied. But she was lost trying to puzzle out the oddly shaped alphabets of Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe, and Asia. She planned to tackle these next, one by one, so when she finally traveled on her own terms, she’d be reasonably comfortable anywhere.

Emery felt like a voyeur, confined to watching and tasting the life she longed to fully immerse herself in. One day, she promised herself.

All too soon, they’d pulled up before the Arena di Serdica, an upscale hotel in the city center. She’d read online that it was built atop ancient Roman ruins, discovered during construction and now exposed to view on the ground floor. Since she’d arrived well before her deadline, she allowed herself a few minutes to admire them before taking care of business.

The desk clerk rang her client and directed her toward the bank of elevators. Her efficiency in dispensing with the massive paperwork required for international deliveries allowed her to be in and out of the deluxe suite on the top floor within ten minutes. As she did whenever she traveled, she noted the room’s view, amenities, and proximity to landmarks. Within her iPhone she kept an ever-expanding database of potential hotels, inns, and guesthouses she might independently utilize one day.

She waited impatiently for the elevator to take her back down. She intended to make use of every minute of her remaining time in Sofia, soaking up as much ambiance as possible. She would first stop at the massive Market Hall to glimpse the local handicrafts and sample some local cuisine. The impressive Neo-Renaissance structure would also satisfy her appreciation for the amazing architecture she so admired in Europe’s ancient capitals.

            When an empty car arrived, she stepped inside and hit the Lobby button. Soothing classical music—a Bach cello suite—wafted around her as she began to descend.

            Emery was trying to identify the piece when the car suddenly slammed to a stop and began to buck and sway. Jesus Christ. Earthquake! The realization had barely registered when she crashed against the back wall, then tumbled forward and hit the floor face-first. Her nose broke, the wind whooshed out of her, and she nearly bit through her bottom lip, the pain excruciating. The metallic tang of blood filled her mouth as she struggled to breathe. Alarms blared, mingled with the sound of distant screams. Time slowed, and her senses came fully alert as adrenaline poured through her. The car banged against the shaft, shaking her in a bone-jarring vibration as she tried to get to her knees.

            Just as she spotted the silver door above the elevator buttons that likely contained an emergency phone or something, the lights in the car blinked out and the music stopped. Over the clanging of the alarms, she heard running footfalls just above the doors ahead of her, a short cadence of quick thumps.

“Help!” she screamed. “Help! I’m stuck in the elevator! Someone please help me!” She stilled and listened, holding her breath. A few seconds of silence, then more footsteps ran past, there and gone in a heartbeat. “Help! I’m trapped in the elevator! Someone please help me!”

            No response, no further sounds except the alarms as the shaking lessened and finally stopped.

            Emery pulled out her cell phone, the display’s dim illumination a comforting beacon of light in the claustrophobic, absolute darkness, but heard no signal. She crawled toward the corner and stood, using the cell’s light to find the hatch with the emergency phone. She put the receiver to her ear. Dead.

            More running footsteps.

“Stop! I need help!” she yelled, and this time the steps faltered.

Someone shouted words she didn’t understand.

“I’m stuck in the elevator! I need help!”

            The shaking and rolling began again, even more powerful. Loosened bricks smashed against the car’s steel roof like a trio of gunshots. Metal screeched against metal, very near. A millisecond seemed like an eternity before a whiplash of cable sang in the shaft.

She was falling.

            She lost her footing as the elevator plunged, rapidly gaining speed, then crashed to the floor.

Before the world went black she heard bones snapping and her own screams.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Detroit, Michigan

Sixteen months later, January 2011

 

Emery Lawson smoothed the butter-soft leather cover of her journal, tracing the outline of the gold-embossed CARPE DIEM she’d had inscribed. Her hands were shaking too much from excitement and exhilaration to make the first entry. She’d wait until she got to Amsterdam, where she would certainly find ample fodder to fill the first blank pages. Closing her eyes, she imagined herself on a terrace overlooking a canal filled with boats, sipping local beer and watching passersby.

She could scarcely believe it was finally happening.

No longer tied in any way to a person, place, or job, she’d cut away all her obligations, like removing the dead tissue around a wound. Painful initially, but necessary for new growth and renewal. She’d sold her home and stored the few possessions too dear to part with. Her friends had expressed both envy and caution. Lisa was still dealing with it all, but Emery knew that one day she, too, would understand and agree that their parting was inevitable.

Everything changed when that elevator fell. During her long recuperation and physical therapy, she’d not only learned to walk again, she’d sprouted wings, and now she was ready to fly. She was heading forth ready to devour life, to savor every experience. She’d been reborn as someone convinced that each day could be her last, every sunset and sunrise the final one she might see.

Her bosses at Premier Couriers accepted her resignation with regret. She’d been their top courier, with an impeccable delivery record, so they convinced her to keep in touch; she might be useful where she was going, and she’d agreed. Though she had more frequent-flier miles than she could ever use, and a sizeable bank account from her savings and the sale of her townhouse, she might need a few extra dollars down the road. Also, she’d made a lot of friends during her three decades there that she wanted to keep in contact with.

As a pre-emptive strike, she popped two Percocet with the fresh-squeezed OJ the flight attendant had handed her. The endorphin rush from finally setting off had, for the moment, dulled her seemingly ever-present twinges of pain. But even the comfy reclining chairs of first class wouldn’t prevent the discomfort she’d experience from sitting nearly eight hours before they reached Schiphol.

Her around-the-world adventure would begin abroad, though she most wanted to visit Alaska. However, she needed to build her strength to experience all she wanted to do there. The remote and unforgiving environment would test her both physically and mentally, so she would spend some time in Europe first, where getting around was usually a breeze. Most major cities—like Amsterdam, her jumping-off point—had efficient and comfortable public-transit systems. As she gained more flexibility and strength, she’d walk, bike, and undertake other adrenaline-pumping endeavors so she’d be ready for the challenges her body would face in Alaska. She also needed to rebuild confidence in her physical capabilities.

Her itinerary in Europe was loose. She planned to work her way south to the Mediterranean, following her whims but with a few must-see sights along the way, including the Louvre, Prague, the canals of Venice, and the Vatican and ancient Rome. She’d stay in each destination until she got a real feel for it and the people who lived here, then move on. If she didn’t hit all the countries she wanted to by the end of May, she’d catch them another time, because Eidson Eco-Tours began their new season of guided Alaskan adventures then, and Emery was going to spend five months experiencing several of them.

An attractive, waifishly built redhead in her mid-thirties paused in the aisle beside her to stow her bulging carryon in the overhead bin. The flight attendant was preoccupied with another passenger, so Emery got up and hefted the bag next to the slender black cane she hoped to soon be rid of.

“Thank you.” The stranger flashed Emery a dimpled smile when their eyes met, not in the common elusive glance of strangers, but in a just-a-little-too-long look of mutual interest.

Emery smiled back. “No problem. Traveling alone?”

The redhead nodded, and the smile never left her face.

“Business or pleasure?”

“A bit of both,” the woman replied. “A three-day conference in Amsterdam, followed by a week’s vacation in Paris. You?”

“Pleasure. All pleasure.”

“For how long?”

“Indefinitely.”

The redhead laughed softly. “Sounds intriguing. I hear Amsterdam is the place to find pleasure of all varieties.”

Emery chuckled, thinking of the city’s infamous red-light district, its gay-friendly ambience, and the “coffee houses” that drew pot-smoking tourists from around the world. “Amsterdam is just the start,” she said, “of an around-the-world trip.” 

The redhead’s eyebrows quirked in surprised delight. “Niiice.”

The flight attendant paused between them to secure the overheads.

“Is everyone on board?” Emery asked.

“Yes. We’ll be closing the door shortly. Do you need something?”

Carpe diem—seize the day—was her new motto. Emery craned her head around the flight attendant so she could see the redhead. “Want to sit over here so we can get to know each other better? Compare itineraries?”

The woman’s dimples reappeared and a mischievous twinkle flashed in her eyes. “Most certainly.”

 

#

 

Bettles, Alaska

May 28, Four months later 

 

            Pasha hung her coat over the tip of a massive moose antler mounted just inside the main entrance of the Den and paused next to the huge stuffed grizzly bear that greeted patrons with a recorded snarl. She unconsciously rocked on her heels, scanning the faces in the room and seeking an answer to her growing anticipation. Something big was about to happen, she was sure, but she had no idea where or when. She wasn’t even sure whether it would good or bad. She only knew it would somehow change her life, so she was growing impatient with its reluctance to show itself.

            Since nothing suggested that she’d have any answers here tonight, she searched the half-filled roadhouse for dinner companionship. Many of Bettles’s thirty-six residents often visited  the Den, the village’s social center. She’d gotten to know most of them during her twenty months here but didn’t see any of her close friends. In fact, the bulk of the crowd was unfamiliar, which wasn’t unusual, since Bettles was the jumping-off point for a variety of adventure trips and the Den provided the only rooms in town.

Pasha headed toward the long bar running along one side of the enormous room. A barstool was a great vantage point to observe everything going on while catching up on all the local news, weather, and gossip. Everybody opened up to Jerome “Grizz” Hudson, the bartender/proprietor. He was a reliable source, since he often heard every side of every story and had known all the participants long enough to determine who told the truth. Perhaps he had some tidbit of news that could shed some light on her recent feelings of impending change.

She chose a comfy padded barstool near the center, with a good view of the booths that lined the perimeter and the scattering of mismatched tables and chairs that filled the rest. No one sat near her—the only others at the bar were two oil-rig workers on the far end whom she vaguely recognized. When Grizz finished waiting on them, he headed her way, pausing to pour coffee into a mug. His moniker suited him perfectly. His shoulder-length brown hair and unkempt brown beard streaked with gray framed pale-blue eyes and a grin distinguished by prominent, pointed incisors. “Hey hey, baby girl. What’s shakin?” He added a shot of Kahlua to the coffee before he set the mug to her left, indicative of his remarkable attention to detail. Grizz had noted during her first meal that she was a lefty and never failed to adjust her place settings accordingly.

“You tell me.” She wrapped her hands around the mug to warm them and swiveled the stool to glance around the room. “Anything interesting to report?”

Grizz absentmindedly wiped down the bar with a frayed towel as he too surveyed the crowd. “Well, let’s see. Frank …” he nodded toward the bespectacled bachelor nursing a beer, alone, at a table for two, “was asking if he could use our computer a couple times a week. Wants to join one of those dating Web sites.”

“Wonder if he’s going to volunteer that he bathes only twice a year.” 

Grizz laughed. “And Helen’s taken a room upstairs, at least for the night,” he went on, referencing another familiar local. The Battling Biandos were among the best entertainment around. From their ongoing complaints about each other, it was hard to believe they’d been married for nearly fifty years. “She says she’s staying put until he starts wearing his hearing aid cause she’s tired of shouting. Eddie claims she’s here because he cut off their TV service. She’d been buying things on those home-shopping networks again.”

 “I predict a twenty-four-hour standoff, max.” She sipped her coffee, remembering the way Eddie always seemed to have one steadying hand on Helen’s elbow or back.

“So, what’s new over at the office?” Grizz asked. “From the bookings here, looks like you all are gonna have a real busy season.”

“Yup, it’s shaping up to be a great year. We’re already almost solidly booked through the fall. Dita’s bringing in some guides from her other offices and talking about adding some more trips.”

“Speaking of, where is she?”

“Working late. A big group from Michigan just called and wanted to set up a custom trip for next week. Guess I’m solo for dinner.” Dita was much more to Pasha than just her employer. She’d become a dear friend, as the power had predicted when they first met, and they often shared meals at the roadhouse.

“Not so fast,” said a familiar voice from behind her.

Pasha turned as Karla Edwards shed her coat over the back of the stool beside her and eased onto the padded seat. She wore green surgical scrubs and had her black medical bag with her. “Heading out or coming back?” Pasha asked.

Karla was the only RN for hundreds of miles, and the nearest doctor was in Fairbanks, so she handled all the priority medical calls for a large region. “Coming back.” She arched her back in a long stretch and groaned. “Bryson’s due in from a run in an hour or so. Can you wait a while for dinner so she can join us?”

“Of course.” Karla and her partner Bryson had become like sisters to Pasha. She had a lot in common with Karla—both were relative newcomers to the state, still adjusting to the isolation of their little village after years of living in metropolitan areas. And she worked with Bryson, a bush pilot who ferried clients and supplies for Eidson Eco-Tours.

“The usual?” Grizz said perfunctorily, already reaching for a Black Fang from the cooler. He waited until he got the nod from Karla to open the bottle and set it before her. Then he excused himself to see to the oil-rig workers farther down the bar.

Karla exhaled loudly as she reached for the beer and took a long tug at the bottle.

“Long day?” Pasha massaged Karla’s shoulder, which elicited a soft groan of appreciation.

“A day lasts only twenty-four hours,” Karla said tiredly as she closed her eyes and leaned into Pasha’s probing fingers. 

Without ceasing to manipulate the pronounced knot in Karla’s shoulder, Pasha rose and stood behind her, where she could use her other hand as well and do a more thorough job. Karla groaned again, louder, and leaned forward so Karla could have better access to her back.

“Everything okay? Pasha asked.

“Good outcome.” Karla sighed. “I delivered a healthy baby girl to a couple in Arctic Village. But the poor mom was in labor for nearly thirty hours so I’m horribly sleep-deprived.”

“We’ll call it an early night so Bryson can get you home and in bed.”

“I like the sound of that,” Karla murmured in a husky voice that suddenly seemed not quite so tired.

“Get your mind out of the gutter.” Pasha softly slapped her shoulder and returned to her barstool. “No massages for those who remind the deprived how deprived they are.” Winter had been very long, and Pasha had discussed with Karla on several occasions how tired she was of celibacy.

“Aww.” Karla complained half-heartedly as she sat upright and reached for her beer. “That did help, though. Thanks. So how’re you? Ready for the start of the season?”

The tingling sense of anticipation returned, like liquid fire in her veins. “I’m okay. Restless,” Pasha replied. “Have you ever had a feeling that something big is about to happen, like a long wait will be over and you just want to…I don’t know…push it somehow to get it here faster?”

 

 

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