Duplicity – opening chapters

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Duplicity

Duplicity

noun
1. deceitfulness in speech or behavior
2. double-dealing, deception
archaic: doubleness


Chapter 1

Conrad

I hear the snowcat chugging down the private road long before I spot it through my binoculars. When it comes into view and I get a good look at the driver, I smile. This is going to work. I had six and a half years to think about what to do when I got out of prison. When I hit upon this gig of his on the web, I dumped all my previous ideas and focused on this. Plan A.

I shift position so I can see the two-lane highway again. Perfect – I count five women now, unloading skis and poles, boxes and duffel bags from their cars, preparing to get their gear loaded on the snowcat. Sugar has returned in her car as well, just like I told her to.

I watch for a few more minutes as the snowcat driver continues packing up the trailer behind his vehicle and the ladies put on their skis. No hurry. I figure I’ll make it back to the caretaker’s tiny cabin on my snowshoes faster than they’ll ski uphill along the road, especially if the ladies wait up for Sugar. She has her instructions. It looks like the loading process will take a while and I expect he has to unload once he lugs all their crap up to the main hut. I’ll be inside his shack by the time he finishes all his duties.

Won’t he be surprised to see me!


Chapter 2

Jessica

We’re here! I didn’t think I could get much more excited to start our ski weekend after two hours in the car with Marilyn’s contagious enthusiasm going full-blast, but now that I’m clipping into my ski bindings along with the other women, I can’t stop smiling. I catch her eye and she starts chanting, “CAW! CAW!”, her fist punching into the air. We all join in, laughing. That’s the unofficial “anthem” for our Colorado Adventure Women group – CAW.

Curt, the caretaker for Wildflower Hut, pauses a moment in loading up the snowcat, looking at us with a doubtful expression on his face. He adjusts his wool cap and sets back to work. Probably thinks we’re a bunch of crazy women. He’s probably right. Amanda is hanging out close to him, handing him smaller items to load. “Here you go, Curt. You should put this box right there.”

“Thank you, ma’am, but you don’t have to do that. That’s my job.”

He’s been calling all of us ma’am, despite several attempts by our group to get him to stop. Deb is possibly enough older than him to qualify as ma’am, but all the rest of us are in our thirties and I’m guessing he’s in that range as well. Sweet guy. Easy on the eyes, too. Of course, Amanda picked up on that right away and is in full flirtation mode.

I double-check that we haven’t left any gear in my car and lock it. I’m still a bit bothered by the fact that we ended up driving four vehicles all this way for just six women, but once both Amanda and Wendy insisted they had other places to go after this long weekend and would drive separately, the rest of us realized we couldn’t fit all our ski gear, food, and other supplies into a single car. I shrug it off and focus on putting on my skis and tiny pack.

“Let’s do this!” Marilyn announces and takes off up the road. She’ll easily outpace all of us if she stays in full excitement mode. Knowing her, though, she’ll probably ski ahead, zoom back downhill to check on the rest of us, and repeat. Kind of like one of those hyper-energetic dogs on a hike that covers about six times as much distance as the people do. I’ve even shared that comparison with her a few times over the years. She actually likes it.

I know two more women on this trip fairly well – Deb and Kat. We’ve been on a number of outings over the past several years since I joined CAW. Deb turned fifty a few years back, but you’d never guess it by her looks or her level of fitness. Kat’s about my age, thirty-eight. Their age difference doesn’t seem to have hindered their relationship any. They’ve been together for over ten years, and recently were able to get married in California.

I’m starting to build up a sweat. To make the going easier, I strapped climbing skins onto the bottom of my skis for the three mile ascent up the road to our hut. I pause to drink some water and look around for the others. Deb is just ahead of me, Kat slightly behind. Kat catches up and takes a break. I can see Amanda making good time up the hill just below us, but Wendy is nowhere in sight.

True to form, Marilyn suddenly appears, making graceful telemark turns back down the road toward us, her tall, athletic form swaying dance-like as her skis draw sinuous S-curves in the snow. “Isn’t this snow perfect! Wait until you try it out. The skis practically turn themselves.” She scans the group. “Who’s missing?”

“Wendy. I don’t think she has skins for her skis,” I say.

Kat adds, “She’s not a very strong skier. We were on one other ski trip with her, and I think she just learned to ski recently. I’ll wait for her.”

“I’ll go help her out. I have skins in my pack and I don’t need them.” With that, Marilyn takes off down the road.

Amanda calls after her, “Tell her she should take off that heavy coat. She’s probably overheating.”

The rest of the trip up to the hut is essentially a repeat of that. Even using Marilyn’s skins, Wendy is slower than the rest of us. All of us stop regularly to allow her to catch up. That isn’t really a bad thing. I hadn’t been looking around at the beautiful scenery when I was climbing at top speed. The towering evergreens beside the road hold pillows of snow in their branches. It snowed Thursday night and so far the wind and sun haven’t knocked the accumulation down. I love the contrast of white against the deep green pine needles. As we gain elevation, I look back and behold the peaks across the valley. A magnificent skyline of snowy mountains is highlighted by azure skies. This is why I love being in the mountains of my home state.

Caretaker Curt chugs by in his snowcat and we take our time starting up again, waiting for the odor of diesel fumes to subside and the clear, pine forest smells to return.

Finally, we get our first glimpse of the hut where we’ll be staying for the next three nights. We feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere – and we truly are. Curt has parked the snowcat by the front of the hut and it appears that he is almost finished unloading our gear. Smoke puffs from the chimney and the log structure already looks cozy and inviting. Three stairs to the deck and door rise from the deep snow. I can see log pillars peeking out below the deck and realize the building likely looks much different in the summer – probably on high stilts with a long flight of stairs to reach the deck. Two small windows are perched about five feet above the snow level.

I remove my skis and start to stash them beside the others. Amanda, who is standing on the deck watching, says, “Don’t put them there. You should put them in the deeper snow on the other side of the steps.” I sigh and plant them in the spot she prefers. Stepping inside the hut, I’m pleased to feel the warmth of the potbelly stove and smell the distinctive aroma of the wood fire. Marilyn, who reached the hut first despite all her additional “yo-yo-ing” up and down the hill, waves me into one of the two dorm rooms. She’s opted for one of the top bunks and has already tossed my duffel bag onto the bunk below hers and has located Wendy’s bag for the other bottom bunk. I’m secretly relieved that we won’t be sharing a room with Amanda. I promised myself that I won’t let her get to me on this trip and figure sleeping in a different room can only help me stay focused on the fun of the weekend. I’ll also be more likely to have a place to retreat to for quiet. Be able to clear my mind.

“Are you ladies all set here? Do you need anything else before I go?” Curt asks.

Amanda sidles up to him. “I can think of a few things I need, but I don’t think that’s what you were asking.”

He blushes and moves to the door. “If you have any problems, just give me a holler over at my cabin. It’s just through the trees over there,” he says, pointing across an open expanse of snow to a copse of trees.

“Thanks for everything, Curt,” Deb says.

“My pleasure, ma’am.” He departs.

“Hoo-ee! That’s some hunk of man!” Amanda pretends to wipe sweat from her brow. “Kind of the best of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio combined with Paul Newman’s blue, blue eyes.”

I turn back to the dorm room and roll my eyes. Of course, who am I to say? I couldn’t recognize Brad, Leonardo, or Paul if they walked into the hut right now. Or nearly any other movie star, for that matter. Not since my accident. Curt was definitely handsome, though. That I could recognize.

“Who’s up for a ski on the hill?” Marilyn is already ready for action again. Everyone else declines, weary from the trek and ready for a glass of wine to unwind before dinner. That doesn’t deter her. She heads out for a few runs on the hillside beyond the hut.

I hang out with the others in the main room. I try to forget about these past weeks and just let go, “be in the moment” as my business partner and close buddy, Jamie, likes to say. He tells me I should try meditation, but I feel like I’m meditating when I’m outside hiking quietly or skiing through the woods. Maybe I should have gone out again this afternoon with Marilyn. She’s able to sense when I welcome her presence but have a need for silent reflection.

I gaze out the front window and witness a red glow high on the summits around us. I bundle up and step onto the small deck that runs along the front and side of the hut, marveling at the color of the setting sunlight on the snow and in the few clouds above the mountaintops. Marilyn glides toward me, a huge smile filling her face. She loves to ski. Or climb, or do almost anything that involves being outdoors and active.

“How was it?” I ask.

“Awesome! You should have come.” She plunges the ends of her skis and poles into the snow beside my gear and steps up onto the deck to join me. We stand side by side, quietly appreciating the ever-changing alpenglow.

“How’s the house thing coming along? Have you and Sam decided on a real estate agent yet?”

I sigh. “I’m having second thoughts.”

“About what? Selling both of your houses?” When I don’t answer right away, her expression turns serious. “Or about moving into a new place together?”

“About living together full time.” It feels so weird to hold something back from her, but that’s all I can bring myself to share for now.

“And…? Aren’t you spending most nights together anyway? I thought you were getting tired of schlepping stuff from one house to the other. And what about Pooka? I know your next-door neighbor looks in on him during the week when you stay at Sam’s, but I’m sure he’d rather have you both around more.”

“I don’t know about that. Della spoils him rotten with her home-cooked treats. A few weeks ago it was Ahi tuna that got freezer burn.”

“Yum! Lucky kitty. So, Sistah, what’s the problem? Remember how excited you were for us when Jordan and I moved in together? It’s been wonderful – best decision I’ve ever made. You and Sam have been together what? A year and a half? Almost as long as us. You always seem to get along great and you’ve never mentioned any problems.” She pauses. “Are there? Problems?”

Sam and I spend lots of time with Marilyn and Jordan. During the warmer months, the four of us have gone rock climbing numerous times. We ski during the winter. Both couples go out to dinner two or three times a month. The guys have shared a couple of serious mountaineering expeditions together. But these last several weeks, since the bombshell, I’ve made excuses every time they suggested we meet.

“Things are a little shaky at the moment,” I say.

“I knew something was up. You were too quiet in the car. What’s going on?”

“You know how we never fight? Even our disagreements are over with in no time. But that’s changed.”

“How so?”

“We seem to snap at each other over every little thing. Whether to put the open peanut butter jar in the fridge or pantry. Which movie to watch. That I’m working too late into the evening. That he’s leaving shaving cream scum in the bathroom sink. Stupid stuff that never bothered us before. Or that we’d just talk about calmly and work out.”

I’ve been shoving chunks of snow off the porch railing and have almost cleared the entire top board.

“Was there something that brought this on?”

Yeah, I’d say so. But I’m not ready to discuss it with anyone, not even my best friend.

I reach down to the next rail and scoop up a handful of snow, forming it into a ball. “I don’t know. I feel like I need some time to sort things out.”

“Did you tell Sam that?”

I nod, recalling his face when I told him I wasn’t ready to proceed. He was clearly hurt and puzzled by my change of heart. He tried to engage me in conversation about how I felt, but I resisted. He raised the subject again a few days later and again I dodged the discussion. We didn’t see each other last night, each staying in our own home. This morning he called to wish me a fun weekend before I headed out, but our conversation was brief and subdued.

“Well, you’ll have plenty of time over the next few days to think. But don’t let it get in the way of just letting go and having fun.”

She’s right. That’s exactly what I intend to do, starting right now. “Fair enough.” I grin, reach up high, and try to drop the snowball down her neck.

“You’ll pay for that!” she shrieks as she scoops up a handful of snow and easily dumps it down the back of my coat.

We scramble back indoors, laughing. “You cheated!”

“How could I cheat? You started it.”

“But you’re so tall. It was easy for you to reach.”

“You’re short, so you were closer to the snow. That’s why you knocked it all off the top rail, isn’t it? So I’d have to duck way down.”

It feels good to shake off my funk of the past few weeks. She’s right. I’ll have plenty of opportunity to ruminate, but right now it’s time to let go and just be one of the girls.


Chapter 3

Curt

I shake my head, trying to clear my mind. Everything is hazy. I struggle to open my eyes but the world is fuzzy, like I’m viewing it through a series of gauze curtains. Everything aches – my head, my abs, my arms and legs. My left quad in particular. I blink and shake my head again. The veils begin to recede. I realize I’m peering into a mirror, but still my image doesn’t seem quite right, like it isn’t quite in sync with my movements. Then I realize it isn’t a mirror at all. My face, but not me. Oh, shit.

“Conrad,” I whisper.

He stands up, shifting his face away from mine. “How was your nap, Curtis?” He says my name with a sarcastic emphasis on the last syllable, drawing it out with a hiss. I hate using my full name.

The room is in focus again. I’m in my cabin. Now I remember. As soon as I walked through the door, an excruciating pain filled my body. I crashed to the floor, convulsing in agony, trying to scream but the signal didn’t seem capable of progressing from my brain to my mouth. The pain seemed interminable. What the hell happened? He was holding some sort of weapon. A Taser? The moment the pain stopped, he knelt beside me and stabbed something into my thigh. I can’t remember anything after that.

I try to stretch my aching arms but realize my hands are bound behind me, stretched around the back of a chair. I attempt to spring to my feet but discover that my lower legs are strapped to the chair legs, so I’m helpless. I feel a familiar panic start to rise within me – the panic I felt when we were kids and he would lock me inside a closet or that time he shoved me into a deep hole and threatened to bury me there. I fight the emotions and manage to present what I hope is a calm expression.

“What’s this about?”

Conrad grins. It’s the same terrible, lopsided grin I remember from all those years ago. My grin is identical to his in many ways, but not in the eyes. That was always how our foster parents could tell us apart. The eyes.

“Well, Bro, it’s like this. You and me are gonna spend a few days together until the lovely ladies head out of here. Yep, catch up on old times. What’s it been? Twenty years? Then I’ll get out of your hair. That’s Plan A.”

“Why are you really here? I thought you were in prison. What did you do, break out?”

Conrad laughs – an ugly sound. “Nope. I made parole after spending a mere six and a half fucking years in that hell-hole. I was a good boy these last several years and earned time off for good behavior. Isn’t that a hoot?” He laughs again, then sighs melodramatically, hamming it up for my benefit. “Unfortunately, I seem to have broken my parole. Which brings me to this fucking hovel. Shit, man, this is almost as bad as my cell in the crossbars hotel.”

He looks around the one-room cabin and I follow his gaze. The wood-burning stove and a stack of firewood dominate the room. A couple pairs of socks and my slippers sit next to it on the floor. The “kitchen” consists of several shelves with a makeshift countertop that is deeper than the rest. A plastic tub for washing dishes and a large container of drinking water take up half the counter space. I have several other plastic bins stacked in the corner, filled with my own non-perishable food. Beside them are more bins with supplies for the guests at the larger hut – toilet paper, matches, paper towels. I’m tied onto one of the two wooden chairs that usually sit at the small, rickety table. My cot is next to the wall opposite the kitchen, my sleeping bag laying crumpled on top. There are even more plastic bins shoved beneath my bed with clothes, an extra blanket, and miscellaneous supplies. A small shelf above the bed holds about a dozen paperbacks. An assortment of cleaning supplies takes up another corner. A flannel shirt hangs on a hook on the back of the door (where he must have been hiding when I came in).

It isn’t much, but it suits me fine.

“Okay, so you’ve heard about Plan A. Hopefully, for all involved, that’s the plan I’ll stick to. At the end, I’ll be long gone. All the ladies in the hut over there will go home, blissfully unaware that anything unusual has gone on around here. You’ll go back to your lonesome little life.” The sick grin again. I try not to cringe.

“But Plan A depends on several things,” Conrad continues. “You need to behave yourself and not draw any attention. As far as any of the ladies know, there’s just one caretaker up here. I’ll be playing the role of Curt Viviani for the next several days. Got it?”

I nod. I need to keep cool, not aggravate him. I remember all too well how bad he could become when things weren’t going his way – according to his goddamn plans.

“If nobody catches on to my role-playing, I’ll just load up all their crap on that snowcat on Monday, take it down the road, and wave goodbye to the gals. Then, I’ll be out of here. But…” He pauses, a look in his eyes that overwhelms any I ever saw when we were just boys. “…if that’s not how Plan A works out, there will be serious consequences. Shall I tell you about the consequences?”

I can feel my heart pounding, my palms become moist. This is not the eleven-year-old “evil twin” (a term I grasped immediately the first time I encountered it) of twenty-some years ago. This is an adult who has spent most of the intervening years in either juvenile detention or prison. I know the “consequences” will be far beyond the threat of cold-cocking me when I least expect it or burning my favorite comic books.

He sticks his face close to mine again. His voice is nearly a whisper, but is more menacing than any shout would be. “I said, shall I tell you about the consequences?”

I nod.

“Good boy. First off, let’s talk about DNA. Did you know that identical twins have essentially identical DNA? Just another wonderful thing we have in common! Well, there’s a possibility the cops may find some DNA of mine – or ours! – in a little convenience store I visited recently. Now, if things don’t go smoothly with Plan A, I might just have to call in an anonymous tip on where to find the owner of that DNA. Get it?” he grins. “That would be you!”

I think about this a moment. It just doesn’t seem like a big deal. I can see the authorities picking me up initially, thinking I am Conrad, but that would get straightened out quickly enough. This is my first winter up here at the hut, but my boss, Mrs. Denningham, not only owns this hut, but also owns the apartment complex where I worked as the handyman for the past two years. It might be a hassle, but only until the police talk to her.

“But wait – there’s more!” he continues. “You know, I met some interesting people over these past six and a half years in the joint. Made some friends. Some people owe me. Oh, and did I mention that I looked up your adoptive parents? Yep, I swung by good old Joe and Miriam Viviani’s house. Pretty little place. I like the white shutters and the fake posies in the window boxes. I understand Joe cashed it in a few years back. Good riddance to the old bastard. But dear old Miriam is still hanging in there. How old is she now? Seventy?”

I stare at him, fighting to keep my expression neutral.

“Well, I still have a little bone to pick with old Miriam. You know, something about kicking me out and keeping just one foster son? And then fucking adopting you!” His voice is rising as he paces the small room, a fist slamming into his palm.

He freezes. Takes several deep breaths and turns back to me. “That’s the other part of Plan B. My friends pay Miriam a visit. Now, we don’t want Plan A to fail, do we?”

I shake my head. “Plan A won’t fail. You’re not going to have to go to Plan B. You can count on my cooperation.”

“Damn straight,” he mutters.

 


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