A black Camaro crested the Continental Divide, sun bouncing off the ebony metal. The engine growled along; the tires spun rapidly, maintaining steady speed as the automobile navigated the sharp turns with grace and ease.
A young man sat behind the wheel, attentively looking everywhere he could to soak it all in. Sawyer Shepherd was prepared for a beautiful view. But what he got was so much more.
The fresh rays of the rising sun stretched out before him, first tendrils, then as fingers, then slowly broadening to a blanket over the valley below him. There were only a few small wispy clouds scattered here and there and wrapped around the occasional mountain like a misty halo. A decent bank of clouds rested on the horizon, a hint that winter was knocking on the Rockies door. Perhaps sooner rather than later. Pockets of shadow lingered here and there in the countless trees of the San Juan National Forest. The dark patches gave an unreal depth and bright contrast to the aspen leaves and pine needles clinging to the sides of steep slopes. It was like looking at the 8K resolution displays at the electronics store. The yellow aspens in particular seemed to wave an enthusiastic greeting to the weary traveler. They waved and shimmied, casting a golden glow that seemed almost ethereal. Even from within the confines of his car, the noticeable drop in temperature was evidenced by the cool of the window. He suddenly longed for flannel blankets, hot coffee, and a comfy fire in a charming stone fireplace. It seemed most appropriate that the song on the radio by a band named after a Midwestern state was promising him rest soon. Though it was dawn and the late fall valley below him was just waking up, Sawyer had been driving all night.
No particular place to go, but a definite place- and time- to escape from as quickly as possible.
Despite his sleepiness, the dawn had energized him a bit. He saw a sign for a “Scenic Overlook” ahead and decided to pull over and stretch for a bit. He pulled off the road as far as he could and opened the door. He stepped onto the crushed gravel, a telltale crunching sound meeting him as he put weight on his foot and raised his body from the low seated car. He lifted his arms up and stretched as high as he could, a small cracking noise emanating from his lower back.
Sawyer was about average height, and in pretty good shape. But that probably had as much to do with his youth and hyperactive metabolism than anything. He was just eighteen, having graduated from high school just a few months ago. He had been an athlete until a few years ago when the thing he was trying to get away from had happened. But even as he sought the distance between himself and that terrible memory, he knew that could never completely break from that day, that tragedy, that ending.
At sixteen, he had been orphaned. It was a tragedy he did not like to talk about, nor did he really even want to think about it. But it had shaped his
destiny more than anything else, and he knew it always would.
He had gotten the Camaro for his birthday, just a few weeks before the ‘thing.” He called it the “thing” because it made it seem less personal and intense. The night before the “thing,” he and his best friend had stayed out late hog hunting. It was a Texas past-time that had grown more common since the fanged beasties had overpopulated. So, he decided to sleep in instead of attending church that Sunday. His parents had gone, but were late because they had tried to get him up and he resisted stubbornly and with lots of snoring...
Because they were late, they sat at the back of the church. Just after the offering, a man had walked in and began shooting. The first three people he shot- and killed- were his parents and the person sitting next to them. He went on to shoot another dozen- none died- before detonating what police thought was a small homemade bomb. No real trace of the explosive device was able to be recovered, nor was the body of the shooter- save for some patches of cloth and a pinkie finger.
The shockwave spread out as is usual with a mass shooting- a social phenomenon that was all too common, not unlike the hogs. The media came and went. The politicians blustered. The tears flowed. The indignation rose. And after a bit, the world went back to normal.
Sawyer found a new normal. He was taken in by his best friend’s family so he could finish high school. His parents left him everything, and as an only child, it added up to a lot, mostly in property. He felt guilt- a great deal of it. He felt anger. He went through all the stages of grief, but those two held on with a tight grip and would not let go. He saw therapists, and though they advocated he pursue college, Sawyer thought a gap year a better idea. His parents had not been wealthy, but with the ranch land they owned being in a prime location for development just outside his small but growing hometown, he was able to secure a little more than two million dollars. That could buy him some time, Sawyer thought, and maybe even a foundation for moving forward at his own pace. But it only added to the guilt he felt- if only he had been there, he could still have them, not just their inheritance.
So, after graduation, he invested some of the money so he could have some income (he was a smart guy, and despite the tragedy had graduated at the top of his class). He packed up his clothes and some things he wanted to keep with him. Items that reminded him of home: a few pictures, some of his favorite clothes, and a handful of personal mementos in a small box. Then he set out on his own.
He had spent some time in Florida- his parents never got to take him to the theme parks there- and then he moved on up the East Coast. He timed it so that he caught some of the change of season in Maine and Vermont, before he turned east and headed to Colorado- having always wanted to see the aspens turn gold. He was determined to deny the tragedy’s power to define his life.
Now it was late October, and the chill was definitely in the air. A little too chill, so he ducked back into the car and brought out his gray military-style jacket. It was one of those prized pieces of clothing, the other gift he had gotten from his parents with the Camaro. He slid it on over his henley and breathed in the cool-almost-cold morning air, then let it out in a plume of smoke that slowly rose and dissipated into the air. His canvas shoes were letting in too much cold as well, so he made a mental note to find some functional hiking boots when he got down to Sage City- his next destination.
He ran his hands through his medium length hair, giving it just a tad bit of a look that he had slept on it and did not have time to properly comb it. It gave him a look of youthful rebellion that made him more than just an averagely attractive guy. He stretched and yawned.
Then he really took the valley in.
It was gorgeous, the colors of the fall leaves really shining and shimmering as the sun gained altitude. The shadows grew shorter and lighter, revealing more and more of the variety of colors, even present in the rock. But in that rock, another truth of the valley was exposed. Yes, it was beautiful, but it was also dangerous. Those rocks lay in fields where no tree stood- but they did lay. Avalanches had scarred the land over the years, decades, centuries, and millennia even. He noticed boulders bigger than his car, and tree trunks torn from the ground that he could never be able to wrap his arms around. These scars exposed varying strata and decomposition, which enhanced the beauty even more while reminding the humans that this place could kill you.
Then there was the smell. Cedar, aspen (he guessed, having never smelled them), and something he could only define as clean. No smog, no humans, no smell except fresh, clean air. Though he was forced to take shallow breaths as his lungs got used to less oxygen, he felt energized.
As he surveyed the valley, he noticed that there were several more Scenic Overlooks. (Thanks to the state of Colorado for pointing out the obvious, he thought.) Since he had no particular place to be at any specific time, he decided to hit them all and soak up some nature.
On the third one, he noticed a historical marker that was labeled “Cannibal Pastor.” Always up for a good horror story of the human race, Sawyer paused. He read about how Pastor Horace Goodley (he chuckled at that irony) had gone mad in a blizzard and murdered and eaten some portion of over two dozen citizens. He had apparently died in a cave collapse- its general location indicated by an arrow- according to a survivor named Hezekiah Romer. The arrow pointed toward a cliff face with an older cabin nearby. Sawyer figured that anyone who had a desire to live so near to the site was either oblivious or a little crazy.
He climbed back in the car and sat for a second. He noticed his breathing was still labored- a consequence of being over 9,000 feet higher in altitude than he was used to. And the focus on the lung exhaustion suddenly made him realize just how sleepy he was. He looked around to make sure he was pulled far enough off the road to be out of the way of oncoming traffic, then he let his eyes close. He was out quickly.
He found himself in a dream almost immediately. He was on the side of a mountain, looking at an open (cave? mineshaft?) spot in the rock. There was snow- falling rapidly and collecting in large heaps all around. He felt cold and afraid. Smoke or dust and falling rocks were everywhere, and he could almost smell the ozone from fire. He was not alone. Some people he did not recognize were there, a few men, and one younger woman who might have been his age or close to it. And they were afraid, too. Except this one guy- older, salt and pepper hair, dark skin. He was looking at Sawyer not with fear, but with realization. Resignation. Something was (hunting? chasing?) after them. And the older guy knew it.
Suddenly one of the people was pulled away forcefully. There were screams. Sawyer turned in the dream toward a snapping sound and looked into a stand of trees. He stepped toward it as the branches moved. He heard a rumble, then a blaring sound as something with green eyes leaped out of the trees-
He snapped awake to the sound of a blaring car horn as a convoy of luxury SUVs flew past him down the switchbacks.
Paulie Reza swore at the stupid driver who was pulled off at the switchback. Yeah, they were off the road, but Paulie had valuable cargo. VERY important cargo.
That cargo was billionaire developer Lucius Furr on his way to acquire a managing interest in the town of Sage City. Furr had been negotiating with the town mayor to invest and prop up the struggling little hamlet. They thought he was there to rescue them.
Paulie loved this part- coming into some backwoods town, watching Furr and his chief lawyer Lennox Dupree lay the sell on thick to the hick locals. Then they’d just buy their town right from under them for dirt cheap. Furr was not there to help them, he was there to help himself to whatever he wanted.
Dupree and Furr had been acquiring pieces of Sage City for the last few years- through shell companies and whatnot, but now the time had come to lower the boom. The town’s mayor- some bright-eyed optimist named Torbin something- thought this was the beginning of a partnership. Ha! Furr and Dupree would let them keep on thinking that until it was too late.
Paulie looked back in the back seat. His two passengers were busy pouring over the financials. They- unlike Sawyer Shepherd- did not take notice of the beauty around them. Money was the only thing they saw as beautiful. And they were good at making it. Furr was in his late forties- but did not look it. He had made his fortune around the turn of the century, in the years after 9/11. Furr started in New York as an unassuming stockbroker. After the tragedy at the Towers, he had gotten into real estate. He bought when no one else would and acquired recession-proof properties. Plus, a vacation destination here and there. He had met Dupree around that time, and Dupree saw no need to take the limelight, so their partnership was born. And it was a partnership, though everyone else saw Furr as the boss. Furr and Dupree liked it that way. It let their marks think they could negotiate. Furr and Dupree did not settle, they dictated.
Furr was decked out in “leisure” business attire. He wore hiking boots to convey that he was going to be on the ground, checking things out and activity slacks that looked professional but allowed for movement. Furr called it his “Man of the People” costume. Over his ridiculously expensive dress shirt, he wore an equally ridiculously expensive fleece jacket. Dangling around his neck was -yep- ridiculously expensive sunglasses. He was fit and tan and had a full head of jet-black hair that made his deep blue eyes stand out along with his flashy, charming grin.
Dupree was all business, all the time. And his suit showed it. Despite the outdoor nature of their visit today, he insisted on wearing a business suit. He always did. He said it made him feel powerful, but he also knew it made people dismiss him as “nerdy” or made weak by time in the boardroom.
That was calculated. The truth was, despite Furr’s leisure attire, Dupree would be able to keep pace, being a stellar athlete himself. He was blonde and had green eyes- but both features were equally as striking as Furr’s. His smile was not as bold, or as frequently deployed, it was slyer. To get a smile from Lennox Dupree was to receive high praise.
Paulie felt honored to be able to drive these two men to their meeting. He had been on Lucius Furr’s detail for about three years, and it had been the best chauffeur/bodyguard job of his life. Paulie did not always get to drive the “Big Car” as the team called it, but today he did. And he did it with a keen awareness of the importance of image.
Mr. Furr expected people to take notice when he came to town- and he expected people to know he was in charge. Paulie was to drive five miles above the speed limit to the destination- honk at anyone who got too close and be as threatening as possible while silent at the boss’s side.
Today was even more special. They had not two, but three cars on this trip. The second car was the rest of the bodyguard detail- five more men armed with semi-automatic pistols just like Paulie’s. Each wearing their own version of “business leisure” clothing. This car also carried heavier weapons- Furr had enemies, and you had to be prepared.
The third car carried a combination of a family and a potential co-investor. The family was there to provide input on the vacation destination potential, and the investor was there to scout locations for new businesses such as hotels and restaurants. The family was the Hansons- Tom and Desiree and their daughter Felicia and son Alvin. The investor was in her mid-thirties and a real rising star in Furr’s circle. Secretly, Paulie thought Elena Cordova was, in his extremely eloquent words, “Wowza.” He believed that it did not hurt her ambitions, at least when it came to catching Mr. Furr’s eye. But Paulie also knew that Cordova had established early on in her career that she was more than capable of going toe to toe with the toughest and taking them down. She was going to be a big deal, and this trip might be the big shot.
Paulie was beginning a not so nice little daydream about Elena Cordova when a deer bounded in front of the SUV. He overreacted a bit and slammed on the brakes to avoid the deer, causing all three people in the car to be jostled a bit.
“What the -(the blaring horn from behind drowned that word out)- Paulie?!?!” yelled Mr. Furr. “How am I supposed to prepare back here? Do you think I came to the mountains for some four-wheeling or to do business?”
Cold sweat broke out on Paulie’s forehead. Not much scared him, but the wrath of Lucius Furr did. “S-sorry boss. There was a deer and-”
“Hit the deer next time. This vehicle is designed to take a hit and keep going. And, there would be a lot less of a disturbance to my concentration. And the less disturbed my concentration, the more secure your job.”
“Yessir.” Paulie could feel his heart in his temple, it was beating so hard. The deer was nothing, but Paulie feared what lay behind the charming facade of Mr. Furr when the smile turned dark. “We are about five minutes from town, sir.”
Without looking up from the papers, Mr. Furr responded, “Good. Remember, five above and no stopping.”
“Yessir,” he replied as he glanced in the rearview. Dupree was looking at him, smiling. But it was not the smile of approval. It was an almost sadistic smile.
That smile scared Paulie more than the near-miss with the deer and Furr’s threat combined.
Elena Cordova glared ahead at the road. The uncivilized brood in the back seats were sucking the joy out of what should have been a great day. Instead, she was stuck listening to the preteens lead their slovenly parents in another chorus of a saccharinely sweet pop song. The driver, one of Lucius Furr’s bodyguards, Shane, managed to avoid this torture because he had a wireless in one ear and an earbud in the other. She hated him for it.
Elena was here to make money. A lot of it. This small gem in the Rockies was poised for an investment that would reap massive dividends. She
had worked her whole life for today. She would bring her vision of mass-market hotels and chain stores to this little vacation destination and put it on the map. And herself on the Forbes list.
Elena was a little older than Paulie had guessed, she was thirty-nine and lived for her career. That meant the little ankle-biters in the back were a reminder of why she had never had children. Or a significant other. The husband was a bore, and the wife was an automaton merely there to serve the needs of the parasites she was raising and the slob she was married to. Elena felt that reliance on others was a weakness- regardless of their gender. She was not a feminist exactly; she was just independent.
That did not mean that she had not been the object of many men’s affection. Paulie’s opinion of “Wowza” was held by almost all men who beheld Elena. Still, she was not fazed or concerned about it. Her dark hair had perfect natural highlights to accentuate her nearly symmetrical face. She was about five foot five, but she always wore heels that bumped her near six-foot, and that moved her into the category of statuesque. Her eyes were a deep blue, and when she squinted her eyes to focus, there was not a trace of wrinkles. Like her business acumen and sharp wit, her attractiveness was a tool to get ahead. She was a shark, and she was eager to feast on success.
She knew her appearance is what got Lucius Furr’s attention. And that was fine. He could objectify her and underestimate her. All while she climbed up and took as much money as she could from their deals. She got this chance to invest in Sage City when others had wanted it desperately, but she was shrewd and cunning and ruthless beyond what they could handle. If today went well, Elena Cordova would be able to sit at the biggest tables with the biggest CEOs and be respected.
And really that was what she wanted. More than money, she was greedy for respect. She had worked with lesser Furr wannabes her entire career and watched as they climbed the career ladder on a wink and a smile, while she did all their work for none of the credit. She had gotten lucky here or there and managed a bit of upward mobility, but that had been minimal by her standards.
So she started to play by the men’s rules. Backstabbing and subterfuge. And that had gotten her an audience with Lucius Furr and Lennox Dupree.
Three years later, she had risen to a point to be an almost equal partner in this deal today. And while she had Furr under her thumb, Dupree worried her. He was all business and did not fall for the usual tricks. He could not be bought or seduced it seemed, but he was capable of doing both to others. Furr had final say, though, and she steered toward him whenever there was a disagreement between the three of them. Elena looked forward to pulling this deal off and pulling one over on Dupree at the same time. She had bested many a man in the business arena, but to best Dupree would be a Title Fight for sure.
But if those stupid hayseeds did not shut up in the back seat, she would never be able to focus in on the task at hand.
She was about to say something when both cars slammed on their brakes ahead. She wondered what could have happened when she saw the deer dart off to the side of the road. No doubt that Neanderthal Paulie was daydreaming about her and nearly killed them all. He thought he was slick, but she saw the looks. She knew the type.
They entered the town a few minutes later, and she began to survey the land. Over there by the river would be an excellent site for the Italian bistro. And she had already looked at the surveys on her tablet about the hillside on the opposite side of the river. That would be the Cabin Bungalows. The road curved, and they headed toward the bridge that crossed the river. Just down the river a bit would be a restaurant built over the river with a glass floor to watch the rapids and smell the pristine water running through the aromatic cedars and pines.
But where these things would be stood- ugh- mom and pop local establishments. Restaurants with “local flare” like that bar and grill just ahead at the city center- the “Hungry Pastor”- in reference to some religious nut who killed a bunch of people a hundred and fifty years ago.
Elena would remove all that crap from the city and make it a carbon copy of Aspen or Telluride. Because that meant tourists, which in turn meant money, power, and that most elusive thing- respect.
And if it meant she had to spend some time with the hayseeds in the back seat, she could put on a smile just like Lucius Furr and schmooze. She could laugh with the ridiculously mundane walking dad joke and hide the pity and disgust for the matronly woman that settled instead of fought. She could even deal with the brats, because those snotty noses and matted heads of hair were dollar signs in her eyes. More of them would come to Sage City than they ever had before. They would stay in cabins she brought to town. Then dine in restaurants she enticed to build a franchise in the city. As they strolled the manufactured quaint streets, they would buy cheesy souvenirs that were way overpriced from shops she collected dividends from.
No, despite what Furr and Dupree thought, this was not going to be their victory, it was going to be Elena Cordova’s victory.
Torbin Glenshaw was nearly bouncing with glee as the three SUVs pulled into the parking lot in front of City Hall. The portly mayor of Sage City demonstrated a remarkable energy for a man so rotund, but this was not out of the ordinary. He was an optimistic one, alright, you betcha. Known around town for his consistent use of confectionary treat names instead of foul language because “Why be dirty when you can sprinkle with sugar” was his motto. The man was a ray of sunshine.
And he kept winning re-election in spite of that.
Torbin knew that this was a big deal. Literally. Bringing one of the largest developers in the world in with his top investor in an effort to turn the quaint Sage City into the next mecca of mountain destinations would be sure to win him mayor for life.
If the people didn’t vote him down for making the town so corporate.
It made him so fudging mad that the people could be so short-sighted. The tax revenue was not enough to keep the town afloat, but they did not want to bring any outsiders in. Just wait, when the money started rolling in, they wouldn’t give two sugarplums about corporations over local businesses.
As the doors to the black SUV’s opened, Torbin opened his arms wide and declared in a sing-songy voice, “Welcome to Sage City, the Sweetest Heart of the Mountains.” Torbin was so enjoying the moment he did not notice Elena Cordova’s dismissive eye roll. He rushed to great Furr and Dupree.
“I trust the trip in was enjoyable?” he asked expectantly. “Enjoy the views coming in?”
“Absolutely, my friend!” replied Furr, the billion-dollar smile getting its money’s worth. “I cannot think of a better spot for the next Furr Development project. This valley is a vision!”
Torbin squealed with laughter at this, and Dupree winced. By now, the Hansons had climbed out of the car, dropping candy wrappers and half-finished soda bottles to the ground. And that is where they stayed. The family moved on to look in the windows of the nearby shops.
“Well, Ms. Cordova, you look lovely this morning!” chimed Torbin as he turned toward the investor. “I hope you, in particular, enjoyed the view on the drive in!”
She smiled her own smile- maybe a half-billion dollar variety. “I especially loved the drive over the river.” In her mind’s eye, she saw dollar signs.
Turning now to the family grazing the shops with their eyes- who were not nearly as uncouth as Elena saw them- Torbin extended his arms again. “And you must be the Hansons- Tom, Desiree, Felicia, and Alvin!” He may have appeared a simpleton, but Torbin was great with people. You don’t get elected to mayor five times in a row without knowing how to play the people.
“Yessirree bob. You got a nice town here, Mr. Mayor!” Tom Hanson replied, a small piece of chocolate melted on the corner of his mouth.
Dupree stepped over to Torbin and leaned in to speak in his ear- “I would like to get on with our evaluation of the area if you don’t mind?”
“Of course, of course, Mr. Dupree. Where would you like to start?”
Furr stepped over to this conversation and interjected, “Well, if Lennox does not mind going over the legal documents, I would like to head up with some of my geologists-” he pointed to two men that had stepped out of the middle SUV. They were dressed for hiking, but to Torbin, they only appeared to have a passing resemblance to geologists. In the sense that they had rocks for brains. “-so we can evaluate the potential for mining operations. You know, if we find some deposits, we might be able to sweeten the deal…?” He smiled and winked, playing into Torbin’s glee. (Of course, they knew there were minerals, gold and silver, but the “geologists” were going to claim they found nothing. Or better yet, some issue with the land, forcing a drop in price, not a “sweetening of the deal.” Not for Sage City, anyway.)
“Abso-fudgin-lutely! Here comes Ranger Steve and his intern- they can show you the good sights. Heyo, Stevo!”
The approaching ranger shook his head at the greeting, and begrudgingly approached. “Howdy, I’m Ranger Steve Zander, this is my intern Mandy Jane- she is on loan from the university over in Gunnison for the semester.” The young lady with curly hair smiled politely but did not extend a hand.
The billion and half-billion-dollar smiles turned full force on the locals. But inside, Furr was not happy, not one bit. He did not need some park ranger interfering. And he definitely did not want some tree-hugging Gen-Z hippie talking about conservation. But he smiled, and he charmed, because that is how you do this.
Just down the street, a black Camaro pulled up to the Hungry Pastor, and Sawyer Shepherd stepped out of the car, and into a much bigger story than he ever imagined.