CHAPTER ONE

 

Sultan, Washington

September

 

     “Ooooh. Nice. Travel guides.” Steffi Graham kept her voice low out of habit, though they were in the back office of the Sultan Public Library at the moment and out of view of patrons. New guidebooks for Europe and Alaska beckoned her through the shrink-wrap of the box she’d just opened. Once she’d sliced through the sheer plastic with her box cutter, she emptied the contents onto the table one book at a time with an excited near-reverence, running her hands over the glossy jackets, pausing now and then to thumb through photos of exotic destinations. 

     She sorted them as she went: the travel guides together, biographies, true crime, and cookbooks. Since UPS had delivered three big boxes in all, Steffi knew they wouldn’t have time to process everything today, so she set aside a handful of titles to take home tonight. She loved that perk of her job—to get first crack at the latest releases, when they were fresh from the printers and still pristine. And certainly it helped her readily call up the right books and authors when patrons asked for recommendations.

     “When are you going to stop compiling dream destinations and actually book a ticket somewhere?” Kris Colson opened the second box and started stacking new fiction, mystery, and science fiction titles into their own piles. 

     “I don’t know,” Steffi replied as she leafed through the latest Frommer’s Greece. “I’ve got plenty of vacation time, and my getaway fund has enough now for a couple weeks most anywhere. I just can’t decide where to go.” Photos of white sand beaches and azure water, colorful tavernas and ancient ruins enticed her to set the book atop her growing take-home stack. “And frankly, I’d kind of rather go with someone than by myself. But purely platonic.”

     “Still?” Kris asked.

     “And for the foreseeable future. I don’t want to keep making the same mistakes. I swear, I’m not going to let my libido rule me the next time I meet someone special. Look where that’s gotten me, especially the last time. If it weren’t for she-who-must-not-be-named, I’d have been able to take a vacation long ago.” 

     "You know what’s best for you.” Kris unpacked the third box and started sorting through new large-print, young-adult, and children’s books. “Hey, if you’re serious about looking for someone to travel with, you could put a notice up on the club’s bulletin board.” 

     “Maybe.” She hadn’t really considered using the resources of their climbing club to find a vacation partner, though she had to admit she liked everyone she’d met there and done day excursions with. I’d have to know somebody pretty well to room with them, though.”

     Kris snorted in amusement. “You? Really? Why, are you some kind of control freak or something?”

     Steffi shot her a warning look. “Okay, so I like things a certain way. But I’m not about to be saddled with someone like…well, like the Hummer, or OhMyGodGirl, on a long trip. Can you imagine?”

     The mere prospect made them both snicker. They had nicknames for a lot of the library’s more eccentric patrons, and the aforementioned were two of their favorite regulars. The Hummer was a sixty-something woman who came in every other week to get biographies of dead Hollywood celebrities, all the while humming show tunes under her breath. She’d serenaded them that very morning with “I Could Have Danced All Night” as she checked out tomes about Lucille Ball, Patrick Swayze, and Katharine Hepburn. 

     OhMyGodGirl was a young twentyish blonde who stopped by often to rent movies. She was forever in a panic about losing one thing or another, and always reacted with the same predictable cadence. “OhMyGod OhMyGod OhMyGod OhMyGod Haveyouseenmygloves?” had been the most recent version. Most of the so-called lost items would inevitably turn up later in her purse, car, or home. 

     Between the two of them, Steffi and Kris had the lowdown on most of the people in town and their eccentricities. Many small rural libraries served as their area’s main social gathering place and citizen resource, and that was especially true in Sultan, a three-square-mile everybody-knows-everybody community situated in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Since the library was located right on Main Street in the first floor of the Community Center, many of the town’s forty-six hundred residents would drop in for one reason or another. 

     In addition to their routine duties assisting people in finding books, the librarians helped locals find jobs and homes, file for divorce, update their resumes, narrow down nursing-care facilities for their parents, discover cancer therapies, and more. Steffi sometimes wondered whether she didn’t know more secrets about a lot of them than their own families did, and Kris was even more privy to the local gossip.

     Steffi had been there seven years, since graduating with her Master of Library Science and Information degree from the University of Washington. She’d loved books her whole life and had never wanted to do anything else. In addition to being able to surround herself with her literary friends and their adventures, she got to help others discover the joy of reading.

And her near-compulsive need for order and organization also meshed perfectly with her chosen profession. She enjoyed such mundane tasks as alphabetizing the New Fiction rack, putting series books in order, or grouping cookbooks by cuisine. And she loved coming up with ideas for their monthly “theme” display; recent examples had included Nautical Narratives, Beastly Bestsellers, and The Book is Better than the Movie.

     Kris had joined the staff two years before Steffi, but though they were close to the same age, it had taken a while for them to warm up to each other because of their very different ways of approaching their jobs. 

     Steffi had chosen her career in part because she was happiest in a quiet, well-ordered environment. Though shy by nature, she was at ease behind the front desk, greeting patrons and offering assistance as they entered, and checking them out once they’d selected their books. But she kept things professional and did nothing to encourage any particularly chatty patrons to expound on their lives at length, much as some of them obviously wanted to. Libraries were, after all, places of study and contemplation, so while she did all she could to assist people, she also placed a high priority on keeping the ambient noise level to a minimum.

     Kris, on the other hand, was an extrovert who took serving the public to a whole new level when she was behind the desk, chatting up nearly every patron who came in, often at length and with particular attention to the troubled and isolated. She inquired about their health, their kids, cats, dogs, and whatever else she could remember about their lives. And she listened to them in times of trial, doling out soothing embraces and comforting words like candy at Halloween.

Steffi could certainly appreciate the human value of Kris’s kinder, personal approach; in fact, she often admired the selfless and patient way Kris could allow someone to drone on and on about something in a purge of pent-up frustration or loneliness. But in her view, the library was simply not the proper venue for protracted discussions. And sometimes, Kris got so caught up playing social worker that her duties suffered: the return cart overflowed or the checkout line stretched to the point of grumbling complaint, and Steffi had to fill the void.

     Initially, Steffi bit her tongue in annoyance every time Kris engaged ad nauseam with a patron about their recent knee surgery, the size of this season’s tomatoes, or what part of their car needed fixing. She didn’t want to make waves at work, and the library director was pretty relaxed herself about the level of noise she would tolerate, so Steffi wasn’t certain she’d be sympathetic.

     Her attitude toward Kris thawed about a month into their polite-but-distant relationship as coworkers, when they interacted for the first time outside the library. The occasion was the annual All-You-Can-Eat Spaghetti Supper at the local senior center, a benefit whose proceeds helped finance a Meals on Wheels program for the elderly. 

Staffers from the library and town hall traditionally volunteered to act as servers for the buffet-style meal, and Steffi and Kris were assigned to work the dessert table. 

     During the first half hour, they were too busy cutting donated baked goods into individual portions and setting them out on paper plates for anything but small talk. They finished filling their table with neat rows of cake and pie slices just as the doors opened to admit hungry locals.

     Steffi recognized the first family coming through the food line as library regulars. Kris warmly greeted every one of them by name and asked how the kids had liked their first trip to Disneyland.

     That she knew so much about them wasn’t a big surprise, since Kris had been in town longer. But Steffi was impressed when the trend continued throughout the next two hours as people streamed by. Kris seemed to know most everyone, and everyone knew her, and all of them, from the little kids to the grandmas to the tough-as-nails truckers, greeted Kris as warmly as a long-lost family member. Several came around the table to hug her. Everyone obviously regarded her highly because of the interest she’d taken in their lives, which made Steffi feel a bit ashamed of how petty and distant she’d been acting at work. 

     After her attitude adjustment, she started asking Kris to join her for lunch whenever they worked together, and they quickly became close friends. They found they had much more in common than they imagined.

     Once the new books were all unpacked, Kris began putting Mylar covers onto the new fiction hardbacks, while Steffi barcoded the new paperbacks and entered them into the card catalogue. When a quiet buzzing alerted Kris to an incoming text, she stopped what she was doing and reached for her cell. Frowning, she muttered shit under her breath as she typed a reply.

     “What’s wrong?” Steffi asked.

     Kris typed a few more keystrokes before she put the phone back in her pocket. “Nothing serious. Fin and I were going to climb tomorrow, but she’s got to work.”

     “Ooo! Ooo! Pick me! Pick me!” Steffi raised her hand excitedly. “I know it’s not quite as much fun for you, but—” 

     Kris laughed. “I’ll survive, as long as you bring lunch.” She resumed processing books. “Pick you up at seven. And don’t forget dessert.”

 

 

Peshastin Pinnacles State Park, Washington

Next day

 

     Steffi was so anxious for a day in the mountains she was ready to go long before Kris’s bright-yellow Jeep pulled up in front of her apartment. She hadn’t been out climbing in more than a month, though she’d kept in fair shape through her twice-a-week workouts on the wall at the gym. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have volunteered to accompany Kris, a much superior climber. “So, where are we headed?” Steffi inquired as she opened the back door to toss her pack and gear inside.

     “Do you care?” Kris asked. “And you know better than to talk to me this early without an offering from the caffeine gods.”

     Steffi got into the passenger seat and pulled a thermos out of her coat. “No, I don’t. And yes, I do. Double-shot latte.” Their destination, she quickly deduced, was Peshastin Pinnacles State Park, on the other side of the Cascades. The thirty-four-acre desert park contained a grouping of sandstone slabs and pinnacles that rose two hundred feet into the air and was a mecca for area enthusiasts. 

     Both of them had been there many times, usually with their climbing club, and knew the area well. Kris figured that getting an early start would help ensure they’d beat the Saturday rush and not be hampered by other climbers. “I’ll let you pick the challenge,” Kris said as they pulled into the parking lot. “What are you comfortable with?”

     “How about Dinosaur? I haven’t done that since the club outing.” The tallest and most massive crag at the Pinnacles, the Dinosaur Tower offered eight different routes up. From the top, they’d have a spectacular view of the sprawling orchards of the Wenatchee Valley and the Enchantment mountains beyond. 

     “Excellent. Beautiful day, huh?” 

     They donned their packs and hiked the half mile to the base of the Tower. Steffi’s favorite way up was the Potholes, a route that had fixed bolts on much of the route. She knew Kris preferred the more difficult Primates ascent farther west, which was out of her comfort zone, but they could see a trio of climbers already heading up that way so she was spared having to plea for the easier route. Kris never liked to be limited by the speed of others, and the risk of rock falls decreased if no one was above them. 

     As they geared up for the ascent, they didn’t discuss who would go first. Kris had several more years’ experience and routinely led, or alternated lead, on club-sponsored trips. She loved the adrenaline rush of free climbing and had successfully soloed a number of challenging peaks without using ropes, anchors, and other aids. Mary “Fin” Fincannon, her lover and another member of the club, was equally skilled and just as much of a risk taker.

     Steffi was content to follow. And though she’d grown confident in her abilities, she was prudent and insisted on using every safety precaution possible. So when it was just she and Kris, they always roped up and used bolts. 

     Kris stepped into her harness. “You know, I’ve been thinking about your trip-partner dilemma thing.”

     “And? Did you think of somebody?”

     Kris grinned as she put on her helmet and looked up at the sandstone cliff. “I have a solution I think you’ll like. I’ll tell you at the top. Ready?”

     “You’re so obnoxious. Making me wait.” Steffi attached her belay device to the one-hundred-fifty-foot rope that connected them. “Then get going, Flash. I’m right behind you.”

     A couple of hours later, they were three-quarters of the way up the sandstone tower. Kris had made the last pitch look ridiculously easy, scampering up the vertical rock face like a monkey on steroids. Steffi was taking twice as long and had to pause midway to catch her breath. Though Kris’s greater experience and fearlessness certainly played a role in the speed of their individual progress, height was also a factor. At five-foot-eight, Kris had a four-inch advantage and could utilize holds Steffi simply couldn’t reach. 

     After securing her harness to one of the fixed anchors, Steffi studied the next portion of the climb as her breathing calmed. The highest part of the Potholes route always tested the limits of her upper-body strength. As she gazed upward, assessing the crooks and crevices of the next several yards, she flexed the fingers of one hand, then the other, and rolled her neck to relax the building ache between her shoulder blades.

     “I want lunch,” Kris called down from the narrow ledge above, where she was waiting on belay. She sounded close but was still out of Steffi’s line of sight.

     “And I want to know who I may be traveling with,” Steffi hollered back.

     Kris laughed. “Here’s a hint. Her peculiarities must not be punished.” 

     Though Steffi remembered hearing those words recently, she couldn’t recall the source. The quote had been among a half dozen or so that Kris had read aloud the day before, as she skimmed one of the new books. A book about…She wracked her brain. 

      Great Quotes From Classic Children’s Books. That was it. And the book was? Of course. Heidi. “Switzerland?” she shouted. 

     “Give that girl a gold star,” Kris said. “Now, move your ass.”

     “Climbing,” she announced, signaling to Kris she was on the move again and to keep the rope taut. The brief pause had reinvigorated her and she made steady progress, reaching Kris a short time later. 

     The sky was so clear and blue that the view was particularly awesome; she could see even farther than the last time they’d been up here.

     “Not too shabby.” Kris glanced at her watch as Steffi shrugged off her pack and settled next to her, clipping to the anchor between them. “When we did this route last summer, I know it took you at least thirty minutes longer to get this far.”

      “Who’d have thought, huh?” Steffi took a long drink from her water bottle. She was pleased she’d shaved a full half hour off her previous Potholes time. Though she still had a long way to go to match Kris’s accomplishments and natural talent, the progress she’d made in just two years or so of climbing was immensely satisfying. 

     Kris smiled. “You should be very proud of how far you’ve come.” She tore her gaze away from the spectacular view and looked at Steffi. “In fact, that’s the answer to your dilemma. I think you’ve got the skills to do the club’s big trip next year. Fin and I are going.” 

     Cascade Climbers, the local climbing club they belonged to, organized several group outings a year. Most of the trips were within an easy drive of Seattle, but once a year, it planned a major adventure somewhere more exotic. The year before, members had done Patagonia. Kris and Fin had skipped it because of the expense involved, and Steffi was too inexperienced for the destination.

     Besides, she’d wanted to go somewhere in Europe when she finally went abroad for the first time, and the Alps were high on her wish list. “So, Switzerland, huh?”

     “Yup. Gary called me with the news last night. It’ll be in the next newsletter.” Kris was close to the current president of Cascade Climbers and always had the inside scoop about club gossip.

     “When is it? For how long? I want details.”

     “Nothing more until I get fed.” Kris unbuttoned a pocket on her cargo jeans, withdrew her Swiss Army knife, and opened the fork. “And it better be something besides PB and J.” 

     Steffi rummaged through her pack for the Tupperware bowl she’d packed last night’s leftovers in. Before she opened it, she glared at Kris with mock seriousness. “This is to share. You hear that? This was the only thing I had to pack our lunch in, emphasis on our.”

     “Yeah, yeah. Share, share. All good.” Kris put her face closer to the plastic, trying to see what was inside. “Is that what I think it is?”

     Steffi slipped off the lid and handed the bowl to Kris.

     “Yay! Your pasta salad!” Kris dug in and ate four big forkfuls before speaking again. “This shit is so killer.”

     “Take a breath.” Steffi stabbed a couple of big forkfuls herself while she still could. She had to admit it was a particularly tasty batch of her BLT pasta, made with garlic aioli, spinach, cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, pancetta, and penne. Kris often requested it when Steffi invited her for dinner because she loved it hot or cold and she always got sent home with leftovers. 

      They devoured the pasta within a few minutes. Kris scraped the bottom of the bowl and handed it back. “Yum, as usual. What else ya got?” 

     Steffi stuck the bowl back in her pack and withdrew a large Ziploc containing four brownies, but kept them out of Kris’s reach. “Spill. Details, please.”

     “Ten days to two weeks, sometime in February. Dates aren’t firm yet.” Kris held out her hand. 

     Steffi placed one of the brownies into her palm, and once she’d scarfed down half of it, Kris continued. 

     “The club is working out a deal with this outfitter who can get us great discounts. It should be pretty reasonable, from what Gary says, especially since it’s the off-season there. You could either pay a little more for private accommodations, or share with somebody, but at least it’ll be somebody you know. And that’s basically just sleeping, anyway. You can hang with Fin and me most of time during the day.” Kris finished the brownie and beckoned for another. “What do you say?”

     “Very tempting,” Steffi replied as she handed the brownie over and took one for herself. “But where the hell would we be climbing in February?”

     “An ice wall near St. Moritz, primarily. And I know what you’re going to say,” Kris added before Steffi could speak. “Yes, you don’t have nearly enough experience on ice—”

     “Enough? Try virtually none. One time, up a twenty-foot frozen waterfall. And that was months ago.”

     “I was going to say there’s plenty of time for you to get up to speed between now and then. There’s Skookum Falls. Dragontail. Or, Fin and I can take you up to B.C. for a weekend or two if there’s not much ice locally. Over there, you’ll be climbing with us, and there are routes for all levels of experience. I’ll watch out for you.”

     “You really think I’ll have time to get ready?”

     “Absolutely.”

     Steffi pictured herself climbing in the Alps and sipping cocoa by the fire in some posh St. Moritz hotel. “Would we get time to sightsee as well?”

     “That’s the beauty of this outfitter. We all arrange our own itinerary. The company just helps facilitate transportation, hotels, guides, whatever else you need. You can spend three days climbing and seven shopping, or vice versa. Five days in Switzerland and fivein Italy, if that’s what you want. At any rate, you’re priced accordingly. We’ll fly there and back as a group and have a few arranged excursions, but most of the time you can be on your own and make plans as you like.” She ate a couple more bites of brownie. “And we all know how you like to make plans.”

     “Funny how cocky you get once you have a full tummy.” The realization that her first trip abroad was finally taking shape, and that it was just a few short months away, made Steffi’s heart beat faster. Seeing Switzerland and Italy with good friends, and combining wild adventure with urban exploration in the same trip? How could she say no? She gazed out from their high perch and imagined herself half a world away. “Hard to resist.”

     “Not hard.” Kris grinned. “Impossible. I see that little twinkle in your eye. You’ve already decided to go.” 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

New York

February

 

     Hudson Mead opened the door to the bedroom and shivered as the steamed cocoon of the bath evaporated around her. Halfway to the closet, she jumped, startled, when a sudden cacophony of soft thuds pummeled the windows. The storm outside raged on, a stiff gale driving huge heavy clumps of snow into her building. Not quite the Polar Vortex that had struck the East Coast this time last year, but it certainly could delay her getting to tonight’s event.

And it could screw up her flight afterward, which would be a real tragedy.

     Except for that, she loved seeing so much snow. While most of her fellow New Yorkers were daydreaming about a holiday on some sunny beach, she planned to spend every spare minute of her vacation immersed in the white stuff. If she wasn’t so damn worried about the global warming that was a certain contributor, she’d be thoroughly embracing the Great Global Winter of ’14, as some in the media had come to call it, because it should make for an awesome ski trip.

Hudson went to the window to assess the traffic conditions four floors below, but the dominant feature of her view—the vast whitescape of Central Park—won out for her attention.

     Wet snow clung tenaciously to the trees, spreading thickly from the windward side around the branches and trunks and piling up fast, testing the weight of dead limbs too high to trim. The boughs of the spruces and their kindred evergreens were already well bent to submission, their silhouettes trimmed to half-closed umbrellas.

     When she arrived home from the airport that morning, the park had been full of children taking advantage of their snow day, building snowmen and snow angels and pulling each other on sleds. But twilight and the worsening storm had sent all but the hardiest pedestrians indoors. A few had gathered at the edge of the park, and Hudson grabbed her binoculars to get a closer look.

     Someone had spent long hours constructing a quartet of snow figures in the open space just across from her building, the famed Dakota apartment complex. These were not the typical three-tier snowmen with carrot noses and coal eyes, but true sculptures. And next to the curious passersby who paused to admire them, each animal was roughly the size of a minivan.

     A tiger, chimpanzee, elephant, and giant panda. All endangered species. The display was a subtle but moving political statement by the artist, however transitory, and Hudson admired any effort to increase awareness of an issue of global importance. 

     The door chime shook her from her reverie. “Come on in, Bruce.”

     “Hey, girl,” Bruce Fowler called out from the living room. One of Manhattan’s most successful realtors, Bruce lived just below Hudson in an apartment with twice her square footage. He was a close friend who kept an eye on her place during her frequent overseas assignments. “Sorry I got delayed. Late showing in the village. I must say, honey, I’m not crazy about this ships-passing-in-the-night thing we’ve got going. I hate only getting an hour or two with you every couple of weeks.”

     “Me, too, Bruce. I’d hoped to have at least a day or two home before my vacation, but the flights getting back here were insane.” She threw on a robe and walked into the living room. “Everything goes through Europe, and they’re getting worse weather than we are. Or better, depending on your plans for the next two weeks.” As Bruce embraced her warmly she imagined slicing through the deep powder of the Swiss Alps. He was still in his standard work apparel: tailored navy Armani suit, white shirt, burgundy silk tie. “I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

     “I’m going to hold you to it.” He pulled back and glanced at his Rolex, then eyed her robe disapprovingly. “Didn’t you tell me Joe was picking you up at six?”

     Hudson glanced at the wall clock. She had exactly seven minutes to finish getting ready.  “Shit fuck.” She hurried back to her bedroom as Bruce laughed.

     The few hours home had flown by, mostly occupied by unpacking and repacking and doing multiple loads of laundry. She was out of clean underwear completely, and she wasn’t going anywhere without her favorite jeans and lucky shirts, so rank from sweat, dust, and campfire smoke they’d required Ziploc quarantine on the way home.

     She often wished she could cleanse her mind of the fallout from the job as easily as she purged her clothes of it. She’d just returned from South Sudan, where she’d reported on the shocking proliferation of forced marriages involving girls as young as twelve. One of the girls she’d met, a rail-thin fourteen-year-old with fawn eyes and a perpetual fearful expression, bore numerous whip scars all over her body. Through an interpreter, Hudson learned that the girl’s sixty-four-year-old husband regularly beat her with a bamboo cane, not an uncommon practice in that part of the world.

     The despicable cruelty she’d witnessed had begun to haunt her, chipping away at her faith in human nature, eroding some of the passion she’d always held for journalism. Great night to be reconsidering your occupation. “Talk to me,” she called out to Bruce. “What’s up with you?”

     “Nothing too headline-worthy,” he replied. “Got a new commercial listing off Times Square, and three new high-end apartments. Oh, and Andy and I split up.”

     Still half-naked, Hudson stuck her head out of the door and frowned at him. He was sitting on the couch, staring off into space. “In journalism, that’s called burying the lead. What happened?”

     Bruce shrugged without looking at her. “Apparently he’s not ready to commit, or at least not to me.” Though his tone was matter-of-fact, she could see the pain on his face. He’d been seeing the Wall Street trader exclusively for more than six months, and the last time she’d been home he’d declared that Andy was “the one.”

     “And you know this…how?”

     A rosy blush colored his cheeks and neck as he leaned back and let out a heavy sigh. “I proposed.”

     “And what did he say?”

     “He said…” Bruce finally met her eyes, “that I’m a terrific guy, but he’s not ready to settle down…it’s him, not me…he doesn’t want to hurt me…blah blah blah.” 

      “I’m sorry, Bruce.”
       “Yeah, well. What are you gonna do? It is what it is.” He looked at her seriously. “I can almost empathize with your swearing off getting seriously involved again. I’m tired of getting my heart broken.”

     “Preaching to the choir. Once was more than enough for me. With all the traveling I do, I’m just not relationship material. But I really am sorry about Andy. You deserve better.”

     Bruce smiled halfheartedly. “Speaking of deserving, tonight’s supposed to be about you.” He glanced at his watch again. “You better get moving. Your ride will be here any minute.”

     She took his advice and returned to her closet. “When I get back,” she called out, “we’re going to have a proper dinner-and-movie night. I’ll even let you pick, as long as we don’t have to sit through Magic Mike again.”

     “You’re on. Anything special you need done while you’re gone this time?”

     “Just the usual,” she replied as she slipped on a pair of black Anne Klein pumps with two-inch heels. “Water the plants, get the mail. Oh, and would you mind picking me up some coffee next time you’re at the grocery? I’m out. You know what I like.”

     “No problem. Anything else?”

     “That should do it. Thanks.”

     Bruce’s eyes widened in appreciation when she emerged from her bedroom in her feminized, tailored black tux and royal-blue silk blouse. “Don’t you look fabulous.” He grinned. “Told you that suit was made for you.”

     On and off the job, Hudson rarely wore anything but well-used brown leather hiking boots and jeans, paired with whatever top was suitable for the climate. It was her ensemble of choice since her youth as a tomboy surrounded by brothers and another perk of being a print reporter. She didn’t mind having to dress up during those rare occasions that required heels and makeup, but she was so clueless about current fashion trends that Bruce always went shopping with her when she had to buy clothes. He’d insisted that she buy the tux during a Fifth Avenue excursion six months earlier, and she had to admit it was not only flattering but surprisingly comfortable. “Yeah, yeah. What would I ever do without—”   

The sudden blare of the front-door buzzer interrupted them. She went to the intercom. “Marco.”

     “Polo. I’m in a loading zone.”

     “Be right down.”

     Bruce got her long wool coat from the front closet and held it up for her to slip into. “Have a blast tonight. I’m so proud of you.”

     “Thanks. Sorry we didn’t get more time to visit.” She grabbed her backpack and slung it over one shoulder. The carry-on contained her travel documents, iPad, a change of clothes, and other necessities. The rest of her luggage and ski gear had been picked up by a courier and was already at the airport.

     Bruce started turning off lights. “Hey, I thought of a way you can make it up to me…and help me get over my broken heart.”

     “Name it.” They left the apartment and headed to the elevator.

     “This thing tonight. It’s all journalists, right?” He punched the DOWN button.

     “Mostly. So?”

“If you see Anderson Cooper, give him my number, huh?”

She laughed. Bruce had made no secret of his crush on the CNN newscaster. “He’s got a partner, Bruce. You can dream on, but it ain’t gonna happen.”

He sighed dramatically as the doors slid open and they stepped inside. Bruce hit the 3 and G buttons.

“Seriously, though.” She draped one arm over his shoulder. “I’m sorry about Andy. If you need to rant, you have my number. Use it.”

     “Thanks, hon.” He embraced her in a bear hug. “I may take you up on it.” When the elevator stopped at his floor, he pulled back and grinned at her. “And I promise, this time I’ll keep the time change in mind.”

She laughed and let him go.

     “See you when you get back,” he said. “Safe travels, and keep in touch.”

     “Will do.” 

     When Hudson pushed open the door to the street, a blast of frigid wind hit her full-on, blowing open her still-unbuttoned coat and insinuating itself deep into her bones. Shivering, she pulled the garment closed and hurried toward the black SUV at the curb.

     Her long-time photographer, Joe Parker, was waiting behind the wheel. He pulled away from the curb as soon as she got in, and she immediately stuck her hands in front of the warm air vents. “Brutal wind, huh?” he asked. “But the snow seems to be keeping a lot of people off the roads. We should get there okay.”

     “Between the weather and all the schmoozing going on, it’ll never start on time, anyway. Who are we sitting with, do you know?”

     “No idea,” he replied. “Maybe another of the honorees and their entourage?”

     “Entourage?” She laughed. “Are you my entourage?”

     “Entourage, minion, lackey.” He grinned. “Tonight, it’s all good.”

     She reached over and ruffled his hair. “Get your gear off to the airport okay?”

     “Yup. Right before I left.”

     “So…we duck out as soon as I’m done and hope I’m the first on the program.” She tossed her backpack into the rear seat beside Joe’s brown leather duffel. “You know, you should call the valet service as soon as it’s my turn, because I won’t talk long. That’ll save us a few minutes.”

     “Flights are likely to be delayed, anyway,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

     They were nearly there when her cell chimed with a text message from her eldest brother.

     Thinking of you tonight and wish I could be there. So proud of you, Sis, and I bet they are, too. Please reconsider my invitation. “They” referred to their parents, and the invitation was to a surprise party he was throwing for their father’s eightieth birthday next month. Ever the optimist, she thought. Even though so much time had passed, she might not even recognize her parents if she walked by them on the street.

            She messaged him back: You’re here in spirit, I know. Miss you, Bro. 

     Joe pulled up in front of the Waldorf Astoria, and a valet came around to take the keys.

     “Thanks again for agreeing to come as my plus-one,” Hudson said as they headed inside.

     “Of course. I’m honored. Where else would I be?” He grinned at her, but he had that same glint of mischief in his eyes that he did when he was about to prank her. They had a running competition of sorts in that regard, and she could sense when he was about to strike.

     “I know that look. What are you up to?”

     “Don’t know what you’re talking about. Would I dare risk your wrath as we’re about to embark on our vacation?” He raised his hands innocently in surrender, but the glint remained unchecked. “Come on, we’d better hustle.”

     They checked their coats outside the entrance to the ballroom, near where a backdrop had been set up for press and tabloid photographers to take shots of arriving celebrities. Rachel Maddow and Barbara Walters were just making their way inside, so the photographers turned in their direction, anxious for the next subject.

     “Don’t you two clean up nice,” the nearest one, a slight guy in his fifties, said as they approached. He snapped a couple of pictures, then put down his camera and hugged them both. “Congrats, Hudson. Way to represent.” Another long-time veteran of the Associated Press, who had worked with Hudson on a few occasions before Joe became her regular photographer.

     “Thanks. Great to see you.”

     Through the open double doors behind them, the ballroom lights dimmed.

     “We’d better get in there,” Joe said. “Looks like they’re about to start.”

     They found two seats reserved for them at a table in front. Hudson was surprised to see her boss Bob Furness there, since he rarely attended any kind of social function, business-related or otherwise. He was a diminutive man with a big heart, and she respected him more than any other of her AP superiors. He’d become almost a father figure, in fact, since her own parents had written her out of their lives. He stood as they approached.

     “What the heck are you doing here?” she asked as he pulled her into a hug.

     “Free drinks?” he answered, then let her go and grinned at her. “This is a big honor for you. I wouldn’t have missed it.”

     “I’m touched. I know it normally takes a grenade to get you out of your La-Z-Boy at night.”

     Bob laughed. “Got that right. So, is my dynamic duo all packed and ready for their big ski trip?”

     “Yeah. We’re ducking out right after I’m up,” Hudson replied.

     “And don’t you dare call us,” Joe said.

     “Not unless it’s a really, really big—” Joe muffled her with a hand over her mouth. She didn’t blame him. More than a couple of their vacations had been cut short when a major news story broke in their vicinity.

     Bob chuckled and held up his hands in surrender. “Joe, it’s her you have to talk to, not me. She can always say no.”

     “Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.” Joe rolled his eyes.

     The room fell silent as the event’s host, Lesley Stahl, took the stage and headed toward the podium.

While Bob and Hudson took their seats, Joe put his hand on her shoulder and leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Be right back.”

     Before she could ask what was up, Stahl began speaking.

     “The International Women’s Media Foundation established the Courage in Journalism Award to recognize newswomen who bravely pursue their profession despite difficult or dangerous circumstances,” Stahl said. “Many of the seventy-five previous recipients have been imprisoned, beaten, subjected to governmental intimidation, and even targeted for assassination, but they refuse to be cowed from covering the stories that others don’t dare pursue.”

     After the opening remarks, Ann Curry took the podium to present the first award. The recipient was Khadija Ismayilova, a radio reporter from Azerbaijan, who spoke for twenty minutes and finished to a rousing round of applause.

     As Stahl returned to the podium for the next presentation, Hudson peered around the darkened ballroom, looking for Joe. She thought he’d just been headed to the men’s room, or maybe he’d seen someone in the crowd he wanted to say hello to. But she didn’t see him anywhere, and he’d been gone too long for a simple pit stop.

     “Our next recipient’s byline,” Stahl said, “has been at the top of some of the most important stories of the past quarter century.” She looked directly at Hudson and smiled. “To introduce her, there is no one better than the man who has, for most of that time, witnessed and chronicled her courage under fire. Please join me in welcoming Associated Press photographer Joe Parker.”

     Joe? Joe was presenting her award? Hudson stared at him incredulously as he re-entered the ballroom from a side door and made his way to the podium, looking as nervous as he’d been when they were pinned down by insurgent fire in Afghanistan. He absolutely loathed speaking in public, so the fact that he’d agreed to this spoke volumes about the depth of their friendship.

     He was carrying her award, a glass bird with outstretched wings. As he set it on the podium, he noisily cleared his throat. “I first met Hudson Mead in 1995 when we were paired up to cover the meningitis outbreak in Nigeria,” Joe said. “More than a hundred thousand people were infected, and more than ten thousand were dead. To be honest, I wasn’t crazy about the assignment, for obvious reasons, and I wanted to get in and out of there as quickly as possible. But that’s never the way Hudson works.”

     The spotlight on the podium dimmed, and a massive projection screen descended from the ceiling behind Joe.

“I can attest that she’ll go anywhere, anytime, without reservation,” he continued, “if there is a need to bring attention to a serious issue that is being under-reported. Particularly if the situation involves women and children, and abuses of basic human rights.”

     Photos began appearing in a slideshow behind him. Hudson recognized them as the images Joe had taken to accompany her stories. Starving children in Ethiopia. Ebola-infected patients in an overcrowded hospital ward in Zaire. Families cowering in their homes during the siege of Sarajevo. Mass graves in Rwanda. Armed thugs using children as human shields in Syria. 

     “Some of you may have noticed that Hudson has never appeared in any of the photos tagged with her stories. That’s a hard-and-fast rule for her. It’s always and only about the subjects of her stories. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t taken a few pictures of her during our many years of working together. And I thought, as I prepared for this evening, that they’d do a pretty good job of illustrating her fearless reporting. As well as her selflessness.”

     As Joe’s previously published photographs gave way to candid shots of Hudson in the field, he added, “She’s never seen these, by the way. Hudson, I hope you don’t mind.”

      The first photo showed a much-younger Hudson standing face-to-face with an obviously irate Russian soldier in war-torn Chechnya. Her face was calmly impassive, despite his fury and the fact he was pointing his AK-47 in her direction.

In the next, she was hunched down behind a Humvee in Afghanistan, dressed in camo body armor and a helmet. The U.S. convoy they’d been riding with had just been ambushed. The soldiers around her were firing back, and dark smoke rose from somewhere in the distance.

     The third photo, badly framed, showed her surrounded by a mob of men in Tripoli, who were shouting at her and reaching for her clothes. Hudson remembered the incident vividly. She’d been groped repeatedly and had lost her jacket before Joe, their interpreter, and two strangers managed to extricate her to safety.

     In the next picture, she was one of thirty-or-so volunteers searching for survivors among the debris of the Haitian earthquake. Then she was assisting Red Cross workers in the distribution of food and water to starving villagers in Burkina Faso.

     The helpless frustration Hudson so often felt in such situations burned anew as memories of those events came roaring back into her consciousness, marring her enjoyment of the otherwise humbling and satisfying tribute. No matter what she did, the desperate situations of the people she interviewed rarely improved much.

     “I’m grateful for this opportunity to pay tribute to a woman I’ve come to greatly admire and respect. Even if I do think she’s a bit too impulsive at times,” Joe said, over a photo of Hudson wincing as an army medic dressed shrapnel wounds in her arm. “Because she’s changed the lives of so many who cannot speak up for themselves.” 

     The final slide showed Hudson surrounded by street children in a Cairo slum. Her well-used backpack was open, and she was distributing the contents to their eager outstretched hands. Several kids gleefully ripped into snacks—potato chips, candy bars, gum, a bottle of soda. Others held aloft her simple travel possessions as though they were precious treasure: a ball cap, a jackknife, a travel mug, a T-shirt, a deck of cards.

     “It is my great pleasure,” Joe said as the spotlight came back on and the projection screen retracted, “to introduce my dear friend, Hudson Mead.” He grinned at her as applause filled the ballroom.

     She got up and headed to the podium. As Joe hugged her, she whispered, “Well played. You’re usually such a shit at keeping secrets.”

     He laughed as he handed her the award, then stepped back as she faced the gathering.

     Several seconds passed as she waited for the applause to diminish. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues. When I started with the Associated Press twenty-five years ago as an intern, female war correspondents were a novelty. Most of our male bosses thought us ill equipped to cope with the dangers of reporting from hostile areas, and it’s certainly been proved since then that in many regions of the world, women in the field are at much greater risk of sexual violence and other abuses than their male counterparts.” Hudson set down the award and gripped the podium.

     “But the atrocities that have been inflicted against our sister journalists haven’t deterred them from their duty,” she said. “Nor has it discouraged young women from pursuing this noble profession. In the past decade, some seventy percent of the nation’s journalism and mass-communications graduates have been female.”

Hudson paused as applause resonated through the ballroom.

     “The result of this greater parity on the front lines? In recent years, there’s been an increased awareness of the human cost of such conflicts, because women often report war differently than men. We are, in general, less preoccupied by statistics, strategies, and high-tech weaponry…and more focused on the impact on the innocent—particularly women and children who’ve been kidnapped, orphaned, tortured, maimed, sexually abused, or forced from their homes.”

More applause.

     “I’m deeply appreciative to the International Women’s Media Foundation for this honor, and humbled to be in such esteemed company.” She held up the award as cameras flashed around the room. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bone to pick with my faithful photographer here.”

     More laughter and applause followed them as she took Joe’s arm and they exited by a side door.

     As soon as they were alone in the hallway, Joe put his hands up as shields, clearly expecting one of her usual punches. She’d routinely give him a solid whack on his shoulder whenever she was either really angry or really excited, and she had justification for both emotions at the moment. 

     "None of the photos of you were bad,” he said before she had a chance to move or speak. “None sleeping with your mouth open, or anything. And believe me, I have lots—”

     "Relax. I just said that so we could duck out of there and make our flight.” She started toward the coat check but remembered the award in her hand. “Shit. I didn’t think about what I’m going to do with this. Can’t very well take it with us, and we don’t have time to drop it off at the apartment.”

     “I bet Bob would be happy to babysit.”

     “Brilliant. Get our coats and I’ll meet you at the door.” She ducked back inside to unload the award, and ten minutes later, they were in the SUV headed to JFK International.

     Joe glanced at the dashboard clock. “Going to be cutting it very close, as usual. Don’t you ever do anything the easy way?”  

© 2018 by Dreamcraft