By Victoria Kazarian
In the warmth of the resort office, PI Bee Bedrosian peeled off her damp, cold gloves and rubbed her hands together.
She prayed for a cabin with good wifi and a working heater.
A woman with leathery skin and a grey ponytail emerged from behind the small Christmas tree on the counter, which was topped by a star that read Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.
She printed Bee’s driver’s license and credit card information on the registration card. When she’d finished, Bee noticed the woman had copied the digits of her license wrong.
Numbers had always been her language. She zoomed in on the error and reflexively called it out.
“You switched the 7 and 9 at the end. The third number is 5.”
The woman gave her a sour look and rewrote the numbers.
The woman’s husband, a silver-haired man with the straight teeth of a denture ad, pulled out a map of the resort and circled the office and her cabin with a pen.
“I’ve got you down for two nights, hon. Checkout’s Christmas morning by 11 am. You’re the farthest cabin on the path. Turn left at the end. We don’t usually rent it, but we’re in peak season. The appliances are in good working order, and there’s a microwave. No phone.”
“That’s fine.” Bee checked her phone. She had four bars. “What’s your wifi password?”
The woman slid a photocopied slip of paper across the orange Formica counter then handed Bee a key attached to a piece of worn wood, DOUGLAS FIR burned into it like a cattle brand.
Bee liked that she’d be a distance from other cabins. No noise from late-night, post-ski parties. Out the front window, she saw snow accumulating on the branches of the fir trees surrounding the parking lot. Under the glowering clouds, the mountains were bright with fresh snow, as if reflecting light from some hidden source.
Bee would be on her own for the holiday. Fifteen-year old Armen was at his father’s for Christmas this year. Each of her neighbors in the fourplex were traveling to family get-togethers, instead of gathering as usual on Christmas Eve for games and dinner.
But what had sealed her decision to travel was the phone call from her father, a man with whom she had a difficult relationship. He and his new girlfriend wanted to drive up from Glendale and spend the week with her in San Jose. Within five minutes of hanging up, she’d booked the cabin in Stateline, on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
Cabin key in hand, Bee picked up her suitcase and hoisted the strap of her laptop bag over her shoulder. It was noon, and the darkened sky was casting shadows over the drifts of snow in the front of the cabins along the path. The cabins looked deserted at this hour, skiers at the slopes, except for a family bundled in puffy jackets and snow pants, toddling down the path with saucer sleds.
The smell of mold and burnt dust hit her as she opened the cabin door. Every cell in her damp, cold body called out its thanks for whoever had turned the heater on before her arrival. She’d put chains on her tires by herself today, rather than pay $50 dollars she couldn’t spare. Her backside was still wet.
The small cabin was laid out optimally, Bee noted appreciatively. To the right, a nook with a drop-leaf table and small kitchen. To the left, a queen-sized bed with a fluffy comforter, a nightstand, and a small desk, where she could write her report and do some research.
Straight back, there was a closet stocked with blankets she might need tonight, and a pocket door leading to a tiny bathroom.
Bee took off her soggy coat, pants and socks, and laid them near the heater, then changed into dry, warm clothes. She started the small coffeemaker on the kitchen counter and put her groceries away in the fridge.
She sank back on the bed’s fluffy comforter and breathed in the aroma of brewing coffee as she thawed out. She thought of her father and his new girlfriend and a more pleasant chill ran over her skin–the delicious feeling that she’d dodged a bullet.
She poured a mug of coffee, opened her laptop and started in on her report. By 4 pm, the cabin had darkened enough that she had to turn on the overhead light. Outside she heard the shouts and chatter of skiers returning from the slopes down the highway at Heavenly Valley.
At 6 pm, with a sense of satisfaction, she finished her spousal surveillance report and sent it off with an invoice to Mr. Drake Burgoine of Saratoga, California. He wouldn’t be pleased with the information. On the plus side, he’d certainly gotten his money’s worth.
As she looked out over the kitchen sink, windows glowed in the cabins beyond, squares of golden light in the blackness. She saw movement in them, and it filled her with loneliness. Armen didn’t talk much, but she missed having him around. She missed her single-mother neighbors and their quirky kids. The sounds of people and activity energized her. Being alone this Christmas had not been her first choice.
She rooted through the odd cassortment of pans in the kitchen cupboards and found a frying pan and a lid that fit. She would cook comfort food she’d made many times: rice pilaf with peppers, onions and chicken. It brought back memories of her mother, who’d taught her how to cook it while she was still in elementary school. She remembered the precise, steady rhythm of her mother cutting vegetables. The sad, ancient tune her mother hummed as she stirred the rice in butter.
She’d just sat down to eat when her cell phone rang. The manager in the resort office.
“A storm’s coming in at midnight. Foot of snow tonight, more tomorrow. There’s a good chance we’ll lose power. They’re closing 50, just so’s you know, hon. Through tomorrow, maybe Christmas.”
What had seemed like a refreshing getaway was turning claustrophobic. She wasn’t about to be stuck in the dark in a strange place in a blackout. After dinner, she put on her dry, warm coat and headed for her car to get a flashlight.
She pulled her snow hat down to cover her stinging ears as she trudged to the parking lot. She slipped the flashlight into her pocket, locked her car and headed back to the cabin. Her footprints from five minutes ago were filling in with snow.
In the howl of the wind, she heard a low rustling near the path. Then a sound that made her scalp prickle. A moan. Almost a yowl. Like the sound cats made in the alley next to the fourplex in San Jose. Mournful and vaguely human.
Cats roaming among the cabins. Nothing to worry about. Still, she found herself walking faster through the deepening snow till she came to the end of the path and her door. She shut the door against the wind and turned the lock and deadbolt.
Then she went to her suitcase and slid her hand inside the inner pocket. The Glock was still there.
At some point in the night, a load of snow must have fallen from the trees above. A loud klumpf above her head woke her up.
She realized the clock had stopped ticking.
* * *
Grey light filtering in from the kitchen window woke her.
The clock was ticking again, though by the hands on the clock, power had only come back on an hour ago. The room was freezing.
She heard a ping from her phone and picked it up from the nightstand to see the text:
HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVE, MOM!
Btw dad got me a new game console
He gave it to me early so I have more time to play it here
Bee smiled at the greeting, then just as quickly felt a flash of anger at David, her software programmer ex-husband. Armen did not need another device on which to play games.
She huddled under the warm covers, looking up Caltrans road conditions. They confirmed what the resort manager told her. Hwy 50 would be closed through Christmas.
At 7:15, after heating coffee up in the microwave, she bundled up, laced up her snow boots, and headed outside to explore.
There was a lull in the storm. She stepped off the small front porch and immediately plunged knee high into a drift of snow. Stepping out of it carefully, she made her way to the side of the cabin. She wanted to see if she could spot anything on the roof, an explanation for the noise last night. All she could see was snow on the back side of the roof, through which a vent poked its hatted head.
The cabins and resort grounds were still. With the weather report, everyone had decided to sleep in. The air smelled of wood smoke, and somewhere nearby, bacon. White covered everything, pristine and new. Noiseless. The thick blanket seemed to deaden all sound.
Then, as she made her way toward the office, a volley of gunshots shattered it all.
Bee froze in place, then lurched through the snow as fast as she could toward the front of the resort. She peered into the window of the office. All lights off. She tried the door. Locked.
As she made her way back to her cabin, she saw a lanky man in his late 40s, calmly securing skis to the rack on his Jeep. He looked in her direction and nodded.
“Sounds just like gunshots, doesn’t it? They’re clearing the slopes. They set off charges to reduce the risk of avalanche. I thought the same thing when I first heard it. Scared the shit out of me.”
Anxiety drained from her limbs.
“Thanks for the tip. I’m not a skier.” She watched him load suitcases into the back of the vehicle and thought it seemed like a lot of luggage for one person. “You leaving today? I thought 50 was closed.”
“There’s a chance 80 will open up. I’m heading North to try and catch the window. I travel through here on business. I get used to being flexible.” The man nodded and began scraping ice off his windshield. “Good luck.”
Bee walked the grounds, keeping near the trees where the snow was less deep. When the office opened, she’d ask about a place for breakfast. Someplace off this stretch of Hwy 50 that she could walk to. A place that served bacon.
By the time she’d completed the path that wound through the cabins, the office was open. The place was warm and cozy, with the beginnings of a fire in the grate. Christmas carols from a radio station played in the background. Straight Teeth was on the phone taking a reservation. He winked, a gesture Bee never understood the meaning of but always found suspect. He held up a hand to show he’d be off the phone soon.
Through the large window, Bee watched the Jeep roar out of the parking lot and turn onto the highway.
“What can I do for you, Miss Be—Bedderson?” People mangled her Armenian name every day. She was used to it.
“Can you recommend any breakfast places I can walk to?” She gave him a friendly smile, an apology for pouncing on his wife’s mistake yesterday. “It’s Bedrosian.”
He pulled out a map and marked some nearby spots along 50.
“The wife usually makes the recommendations. She’s out getting groceries before the storm starts up again. There’s a coffee place down on the corner—they serve pastries. And a nice sit-down restaurant with full breakfasts across the street.”
Bee thanked him and walked out into the cold.
After eggs and bacon at the sit-down place, Bee walked back on the path next to highway, just as flakes began to fall. By the time she reached her cabin, the flurries had begun. She opened the door, eager for warmth.
As she closed the door behind her, she felt it. Someone had been in her cabin.
She scanned the room, looking for anything missing or disturbed. Her heart pounding, she slid her hand into the suitcase. Stupid of her to have left it. She relaxed as her fingers wrapped around the Glock. She transferred it to her pants pocket. She checked the desk drawer. Her laptop was still there.
She went through the kitchen, scanned every surface, and looked through any personal items she’d brought. All accounted for.
The bathroom pocket door was slid halfway closed. It looked crooked. This was something she dealt with regularly in her apartment. She lifted it up with both hands till it realigned on its track, and she was able to slide it open.
She felt a rush of frozen air. The bathroom window was wide open.
As she went to shut it, she looked down and saw grey hair splayed across the snow below. A pair of open eyes, lashes clumped with snowflakes, looked back at her.
* * *
It took Bee several tries to get through. She had one bar.
The 911 dispatcher told her the police would be delayed, due to a multi-car accident on Lake Parkway and the difficulty of getting through town until the plows came through.
Bee took a photo on her phone of a muddy partial footprint on the window frame. Then went outside, around the back of the cabin to the woman lying in the snow. Bee could see the holes in the woman’s puffy jacket. Blood poured out, still warm enough to melt the snow. She hadn’t been dead long.
Bee sat back on her heels and looked around her. The snow-covered stretch behind the cabin looked like the dumping grounds for everything the resort wanted to hide: rusted bikes, a ladder, flattened cardboard Costco toilet paper boxes, and a metal filing cabinet, one of its drawers jutting open like a jaw.
And of course, the body of the manager’s wife.
When Bee heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow, she pulled out the Glock.
“I should have known you were law enforcement or security.” The voice was familiar. There was a smile in it, but not a friendly one. “You had the look.”
The tall man with the Jeep stood to her right, and she heard him cocking his gun. He had a foot and a good 50 pounds on her.
“Give me the gun. You’re going help me get something off the roof.” He angled his head. His breath freezing in the air looked like smoke. “If you help me, I’ll shoot you in the leg and not the chest.”
Bee tossed the Glock and watched it sink into the snow next to him. She listened for the sound of police sirens. Nothing.
With his gun turned on her, Bee pulled the ladder out of the pile of debris, her fingers stinging with the cold. With great effort and no help from him, she pulled at the rusty ladder till it wrenched open with a creak. She set it down in the snow on the side of the cabin and waited for him to climb it.
“You shitting me? You’re the one going up.” He spat the words out, then handed her a rake. “You’re gonna need this.”
“I have no idea what I’m looking for.” Her gloveless fingers ached from the cold.
“There’s a package in the snow. Near the vent.”
She climbed, one hand gripping the side of the ladder, one holding the rake. She stood on the last rung and felt the ladder sway beneath her. She laid her forearm over the edge of the roof to steady herself, then slowly extended the end of rake toward the vent and pulled back. Her leverage was not good. She brushed the top of the clump and the rake flopped to one side.
“Why is this so hard for you?” His speech sounded slurred and unnaturally fast, like someone on amphetamines. “Hurry up.”
Bee gripped the rake harder and laid it next to the vent, feeling the weight of something substantial as she pulled it back. A bundle. Wrapped in cloth and sealed in a large zip lock bag.
She turned to hand it down to him. Once it left her hands, she felt a jolt beneath her feet. The ladder fell away and she toppled into the fresh snow, which wrapped around her like a fluffy comforter. So soft, it flooded her with relief.
Until the ladder hit her.
In the daze of that moment, she punched 911 into her phone. His California license plate was displayed in her head, captured like a screen shot. She recited the number for the dispatcher.
Then she sank back into the comforter and everything went dark.
* * *
Three days later, with a hospital pamphlet on concussion care, Bee drove back to San Jose. David had just dropped off Armen, who agreed to leave his game system in the box while he spent the evening with his mom watching Elf.
“The guy kicked the ladder.” Armen stuck a straw into a bottle of Dr. Pepper, his drink of choice. “At least he didn’t shoot you. Who was he anyway?”
“I found out his name is Logan Warner. He distributed fentanyl – a very bad drug you should never take – through Nevada and the Sacramento area. Since the resort didn’t usually rent my cabin, he had been storing shipments there before he delivered them. Apparently he hid them in the closet under the extra blankets.”
“Why did he shoot the manager’s wife?”
“She caught him going through the bathroom window of my cabin. The Stateline police told me they were able to catch him in Reno about an hour after he left.”
“If he shot her, why didn’t he shoot you, mayrig?” He used the Armenian word for mom, which made her tear up a little.
“Maybe grandma was watching over me.”
Armen looked at her in awe. To this point, no aspect of her PI work had ever seemed to penetrate his impassive teenaged exterior to get a response.
Now he stared at her, his brown eyes shiny with a combination of fear and respect.
“I don’t even do stuff like that in games.”
Copyright, Victoria Kazarian 2020
All rights reserved