Excerpt from "Terminal Ambition"
August 16, Saturday
Maggie Mahoney bit back a smile at her client’s frustration. She’d watched Wade Johnson coolly negotiate deals worth billions of dollars, but he had just been shut down by their helicopter pilot, a grizzled Vietnam vet called Stoney. Shaking his gray ponytail, Stoney gave the same response to each of Wade’s offers: “Not worth it.”
Maggie pushed the microphone button on her headset. “You might as well promise him the moon, Wade. He won’t take your offer because he doesn’t think he’ll live to collect it.”
Wade’s goal of a longer run down Valle Nevado could be satisfied only if Stoney landed above the chopper’s maximum ceiling. Their planned sixty-five hundred foot run somehow wasn’t enough for Wade. Of course, what Wade really wanted was to prove he was Wondrous Wade, King of the Street and master of all he surveyed.
Stoney wasn’t with the program. As he put it, the helicopter “didn’t have the guts to grab onto air that thin.” He could land the sucker. The challenge would be lifting off again after Wade and party departed.
Indifferent to the prospect of Stoney’s death, Wade continued to up the ante. The pilot rebuffed all offers until he heard something that overrode his instinct for self-preservation: “$100,000.”
“Deal. Cash to me or my old lady.”
The men shook hands, and Wade flashed a triumphant thumb’s up to the other passengers. Maggie knew she should look enthusiastic, but the best she could manage was a half smile. The prospect of Stoney risking his life to feed Wade’s ego turned her stomach. But she told herself a man with forty years experience flying helicopters surely knew their limits.
The helicopter put down near the top of the twelve thousand foot peak and offloaded passengers and gear. The rest of the party busied themselves with final preparations for the run, but Maggie hung back to silently cheer Stoney on. She covered her ears to muffle the low thrum of the helicopter’s rotors and the high-pitched shriek of its turbine engine. Swirling gusts of snow stung her face. The chopper rose, bobbed on the icy froth from the rotor’s churn, then pitched forward.
When it finally leveled off, Maggie turned to share her relief but the others were focused on sorting equipment. Her husband, Bryce Chandler, worked with Wade to lay out skis and poles. The men’s gear was easily distinguished: Wade was the shortest member of the foursome and Bryce the tallest.
In his matching parka and pants, Wade resembled a mustard fire hydrant as he spread his arms wide. “Just look at this! It’s a day to die for. Great weather with two feet of fresh powder.” To his left, the peak towered over steep vertical slopes; a vast bowl opened on the right. Brilliant sunshine lit the cloudless blue sky and warmed the air to twenty degrees.
“So, ladies, what’s it going to be?” Wade asked. “Are you ready for the ride of a lifetime or do you want to dilly dally down the mountainside?”
The run would be gnarly. The men fancied themselves downhill racers and would ski close to the fall line. Maggie didn’t share their delusion, but she never backed away from a challenge. She lifted a shoulder in a deliberately casual shrug. “Sure. I’m up for it.”
“That’s my girl.” Bryce winked, and a grin warmed his patrician features.
Maggie turned to Savannah Johnson. “How about you?”
“Not me.” Tall and catwalk thin, she tightened her collagen-plumped lips. “I’ll take my time and track back and forth.”
“Let’s go, guys.” Maggie charged down the face in a linked series of shallow turns. She quickly established a rhythm and let it seduce her down the steep slope. Bryce and Wade followed to her left, each carving his own gently arched track.
Maggie paused on a relatively flat shoulder. As Bryce and Wade stopped beside her, she checked Savannah’s progress. The other woman was proceeding cautiously, her silver parka and ski pants almost invisible against the winter panorama.
Suddenly, Maggie heard a boom that sounded like thunder. Except thunder didn’t make sense on a winter day. Squinting, she scanned the mountainside for the source of the noise. The deep, muffled thunk had come from a fracture in the snow two hundred feet behind Savannah. A massive white slab was charging downhill straight at them. It picked up speed, swallowing the other woman.
Fear flooded through Maggie. “Avalanche!”
The men looked up. “Holy shit!”
Maggie pointed her ski pole to a cluster of evergreens sheltered by a rocky ledge. “Head for the trees.” As she rocketed away, she took a forty-five degree line over the slope.
Bryce yelled, “Maggie, straight downhill. We’ll outrun it.” The men launched themselves onto the mountainside.
But they passed her, their bodies tucked. She was committed to reaching the ledge. If she didn’t, she’d be hit by a white freight train. The slab of snow had shattered into blocks as long as boxcars.