Rating: PG 13+
Characters: Don Eppes, OFC
Challenge: Clue Challenge #23, May 2011 at hurt_don . Prompts: Who? Don; What? Powder; Where? Town Hall
Disclaimer: I don't own them, I just borrowed them. Numb3rs and its characters are the property of those that created them. No copyright infringement intended. No financial reward gained. All real places and organisations are used in a fictional sense. Anything you don't recognise is a product of my imagination.
Spoilers: nil, set just post series.
Word count total: ~4,100
Summary: It was the last place Don expected to confront a murderer.
The fourth time they rode the same chair up the mountain Don felt it only right that he say hello to the woman. It had been her skill he’d been admiring on the slopes, not the trim, lithe figure he could tell was bundled under the bulky ski clothes.
“How’s your day been?” Don asked.
Sitting beside him on the otherwise empty quad-chair the woman flashed him a smile beneath her blue-framed, reflective ski goggles, “Great! Yours?”
Returning her smile with one of his own Don waved his hand at the vista ahead of them. “Perfect. What’s not to love?”
As they rattled over another tower supporting the cables she gave the mountain a once over. “Powder, powder everywhere.”
It was a truly perfect day after a night of solid snow had left another six inches of fresh powder on the slopes. That was on top of the dumps of powder over the previous few days and nights. Whilst the air was bitingly cold there was no wind and conditions could not be better with the crystal blue skies above them making this a ‘blue-bird’ day. The forecast suggested it wasn’t to last but he fully intended to make the most of it while it did.
“Where are you from?” He asked. She had an odd accent that he couldn’t place.
“Around,” she replied evasively. She tempered the response with another dazzling smile and explained, “Lots of travel. You?”
“Getting that smog out of your lungs, huh?”
He faked a cough, “Yeah. All this fresh mountain air is playing hell with my breathing.”
“I don’t doubt it,” the woman answered with a laugh.
They rode past a few more towers in comfortable silence enjoying the scenery before they descended to the exit ramp.
“See you next chair,” Don said hopefully as he pushed up the safety bar. While he was happily affianced to Robin, currently stuck in LA on a big case, there was no harm in being friendly.
“Have a good run,” she answered pushing off and turning left as he went right.
Stopping out of the way of other skiers coming off the chair Don slid the straps from his poles around his wrists. He couldn’t help but look over his shoulder to see the woman adjust hers on the move before turning down a black run. She was clearly an expert skier so that was no surprise; he’d seen her earlier whilst riding up on the chairlift and had admired her smooth, confident style down runs he wouldn’t dream of trying. He was limited to the blue, intermediate runs whereas she was able to ski the black, expert runs with ease.
Checking the trail map on the board he selected a blue run he hadn’t tried and pushed off. There were more trees than on the others he’d tried and he found he enjoyed the runs between the reasonably widely spaced trees. The combination of some steeper sections with milder grades and the trees quickly made this a favourite for him and he planned to repeat it.
Reaching the chair he cast his eye across those already in the short, fast moving queue and then across the bottom of the runs funnelling down to the base. The woman, distinctive in her matching white on white ski outfit with electric blue trim was nowhere to be seen. Figuring she’d already finished her run and was ahead of him he shrugged and joined the queue.
After a friendly chat with a young snowboarder Don got off at the top and took the same blue run as planned. It was even better the second time round now that he had some idea of what lay ahead and was able to select his line. His speed increased and it was exhilarating to have the trees whizz by so close. Nearing the base all too quickly he slid into a perfect hockey stop at the bottom of the tree line as he caught his breath, feeling the goofy grin on his face.
He’d almost not come skiing after Robin had come home last week with the bad news that the Marcheson case had been moved up. They’d been planning this break away for months, getting early bird specials on their accommodation and lift passes allowing them to make the trip two weeks, not one. After hearing Robin’s news he been determined to postpone the trip or cancel it but Robin wasn’t hearing of it. He’d been managing some rough cases lately requiring his presence in the field leaving him tired and needing time off but Robin knew he’d simply cancel his leave and go into the office if he didn’t go away. It had taken some convincing, not for the first time leaving Don considering she really should have been a negotiator rather than a lawyer, and here he was. At the moment with his skis ankle deep in powder he was more than glad he’d come. Days like this when he could forget being an FBI agent were rare and to be savoured.
As he turned to head off for the chair he saw a fast moving figure and recognised the white on white streak making her way towards the line. Skating slightly and pushing harder with his poles Don picked up his pace and made it to the entrance at the same time. The waiting attendant scanned their passes and they moved through.
“Good run?” She asked.
“Not bad. Going to have a run down Terminator next.”
Don took a moment to place the name and the run on his mental image of the map of the mountain. It came to him, Terminator was a double-black run with a note he’d read in the mountain guide insisting it was for expert skiers only. “Terminator,” he repeated. “Sounds hard core.”
Pulling down the safety bar she turned to him, “It’s a tough one but okay if you take care.”
“I think I’ll stick to the blues.”
“How did you find The Forest?”
The Forest was the run Don had just come down. He felt a small thrill that she’d noticed him. “Great.”
“If you can handle that one you should be up for some blacks if you wanted,”
He gave a slight shake of his head; he was under strict instructions from Robin to return without any broken bones. The ski lesson a few days ago had improved his skiing to the point even the instructor had made the same suggestion but he was determined to stick to the blues. There were more than enough of those runs to keep him occupied during the rest of his time at the resort. “Blues are fine.”
“Have you tried Ring Road?”
They spent the rest of the ride discussing various blue runs. Her knowledge was comprehensive and he found himself contemplating the map board after they parted at the top. Ring Road sounded good and he found it on the map, a curving run that descended the mountain in a series of S-curves rather than a circle but the names of the runs often didn’t make any sort of sense. He checked out another she’d recommended, Back Track, and saw that it would be narrow and steep in places, the type of run he figured to be more navy blue than regular blue. Deciding instead on Ring Road he pushed off.
Over the next few hours as clouds started to move in from the horizon promising more snow he tried most of the runs she’d recommended. Some he found a touch too challenging, tending to a darker shade of blue than he was comfortable with and others he thoroughly enjoyed. Confident that a few more days of skiing would only improve his skills he made a mental note to try some of the harder ones again later.
It was late in the day when he met the woman on the chair lift for the seventh time and he decided they were past anonymity. As they started up he stowed his poles under his leg and pushed up his goggles offering his hand. “I’m Don, by the way.”
“Michelle.” The woman answered, pushing up her own goggles and shaking his hand.
The slight French inflection to the name made it sound exotic and he guessed that perhaps she was from a French speaking part of Canada. Not too much of a stretch since they were in British Columbia. Seeing her face clearly for the first time he took a moment and looked her over. He found himself frowning a few seconds later.
She raised an eyebrow and the slight hint of amusement on her features dropped away.
“Sorry, you look a little familiar for some reason,” Don explained. He thought for an instant he saw a flash of something in her eyes that had him wondering. She really did look familiar but with her ski gear obscuring everything but the oval of her face it was hard to be sure.
Michelle suddenly turned on a truly dazzling smile, “Would you like to have dinner tonight?”
Don’s train of thought derailed and he couldn’t deny he felt another thrill at her question but those days were long over, “I’m not looking to hook up.”
“Not yet, engaged.”
“Lucky you,” Michelle commented and seemed genuinely happy for him. “Dinner, no strings attached. What do you say?”
“Tell you what, wait for me at the bottom after this run and let me know.”
“Sure,” he answered. He could do that. It would be the last run for the day, the lifts due to close in the next few minutes but it would give him time to think. A friendly chat on the lift was one thing, dinner was something else. He was fairly sure that Robin wouldn’t be jealous, he’d tell her about it of course, but he couldn’t help feel it was a little wrong. He’d been there before and didn’t want to go there again.
They reached the top again and parted. This time Don’s run didn’t go so well with a tumble that had him spitting out snow and having to take a few minutes to brush himself off and recover his skis before he could continue. The blue-bird day was a memory with the sky now heavily overcast and the cloud base lowered to the point he’d been skiing through fog. The lack of contrast had led to his tumble as his dark goggles, prefect for bright sunlight, weren’t so good in dull, flat light. On the plus side he wasn’t hurt, powder snow made for a soft landing.
Starting down he saw the mid-mountain cafe a short distance below and without considering the time decided to stop in for a quick hot chocolate. He slid to a halt in another perfect hockey stop, something else his instructor had helped him with. As he popped one ski release with his pole he saw the sign that the cafe was closed for the day just as he also finally noticed that the ski racks were empty. He slapped his helmet at his own stupidity, of course it was closed, it was late afternoon and everything else was shutting down.
About to fit his boot back into the bindings movement caught his eye. Looking up he saw Michelle at the edge of the trees off to the side of the cafe with another person, a man judging by his size. Something about the way she was standing instantly had him on alert and he pulled his goggles up to try to get a better view. It looked like Michelle was speaking to the man but then Don realised the man was facing away from her and appeared to be standing stiffly, hands held out from his sides. There was no sound but the man suddenly dropped to the snow and didn’t move. Don stood in shock for a moment as he processed what he’d just seen.
Michelle bent for a moment before standing and tucking a dark shape away into her jacket. She turned only to freeze as she saw she was being watched.
Don snapped his boot into the bindings and started off, heading directly away from the scene. The image of the man dropping to the snow replayed itself in his mind he skated and pushed hard with his poles to pick up as much speed as he could. Risking a glance back he saw Michelle pursuing him. With no time to waste he took the first run and headed down the mountain. Having just witnessed what looked like a murder and finding himself being pursued by the murderer he was in serious trouble. He may have been an FBI agent but here in Canada that meant little and more alarmingly in his current situation, it also meant he was unarmed.
The slope dropped quickly away forcing Don to concentrate on his skiing; he had to get down to the base and alert the ski patrol as quickly as he could so they could call the RCMP. As he struggled to maintain control on what seemed like an empty mountain he quickly realised it wasn’t just Michelle he had to worry about. The slope became ridiculously steep and the ridges and bumps that covered the almost straight run made it increasingly difficult to keep his skis parallel. The fading light wasn’t helping things either and he was bouncing over the bumps and ridges before he actually saw them. It was all he could do to make the next turn and avoid crashing into the tree that loomed in front of him. Unlike the run he’d enjoyed earlier the trees at the side of this run were tightly packed and looked almost impenetrable.
Lurching off another bump he tried to get his skis together again and shifted his weight trying to execute a stop. Just as he nearly thought he had it one ski hit an unseen rut from a previous skier and he lost his balance. The stop turned into a poorly executed turn and he shot across the run trying desperately to regain control. He made the next turn, just, and found himself heading straight down the lumpy run picking up unwanted speed. Somehow he managed to adjust his angle and cut across the run but this time as he tried to turn before the wall of trees one ski caught on something and he went down hard. There was pain in his knee and then his shoulder then nothing.
The first thing he noticed was the cold as he groaned and shifted. He instantly remembered that he’d fallen and with that recollection he felt pain from his left knee which was balanced by the pain in his right shoulder. Moving his left arm he adjusted his right so the shoulder didn’t hurt so much. He got his eyes open and noticed two things, his goggles were gone and there was a figure looming over him. Recognising the bare face under the helmet everything came flooding back and he froze.
“Thought you didn’t want to try the blacks?”
Not sure what Michelle meant he had to ask, “Blacks?”
She smiled down at him, “Double-black actually. Town Hall.”
It took a moment, reasonable given the circumstances, but it finally clicked. The run called Town Hall was a double-black that started near the mid-mountain cafe, he remembered. Not concentrating on where he’d been going, just on getting away, he’d taken the first run without checking the sign. He’d brought himself down and now Michelle had him at her mercy. As if hearing his thoughts she lifted one of her ski poles and placed the pointed tip against the hollow of his throat. Automatically he went to knock it away with his left hand but a warning jab had him holding still.
In her right hand was a dark shape that she turned slightly allowing the fast waning light to glint off the metal shield. “So, FBI?”
That explained why he was so cold, looking down he confirmed it. His ski jacket had been unzipped and she’d searched him, finding his badge and ID. Even though he had no jurisdiction in Canada he’d still carried the leather folder with him. He looked back up and introduced himself. “Special Agent Don Eppes.”
“So that’s how you recognised me.”
“I didn’t recognise you,” Don countered. “I just thought you looked familiar.”
As she looked down at him Don suddenly realised that her dinner invitation had likely been a ruse to find out how he knew her. Where it would have gone from there he didn’t want to guess.
“But now that you’ve seen what I do?”
Don swallowed at the admission and saw the movement transmitted along the ski pole resting against his throat. Until then he’d been hoping he was wrong and had just stumbled across an extreme domestic dispute even if she’d been far too calm executing her target. He must have come across her face somewhere through his work but, “I still don’t recognise you.”
“But you know what I am,” Michelle insisted.
He couldn’t deny it. She’d as good as told him she was a professional assassin. “There’s nothing I can do to you,” he said instead.
She tossed his ID wallet down onto his chest. “I don’t know that I can be so sure of that.”
Don tracked her now free right hand, noting that her outer glove was hanging from a strap at her wrist, as she partially unzipped her own jacket and tucked her hand inside. He barely breathed as he expected her to draw her gun but she stilled as if waiting for something, her left hand holding the pole steadily at his throat.
“I don’t know enough to track you after you get away,” Don started, feeling an explanation was necessary. “I certainly can’t stop you.” He’d had enough time now to decide his knee was probably not dislocated but certainly badly wrenched and he likely had a broken collar bone from hitting the tree he was partially wedged against. Physically he was no threat to her.
There was a slight smile, “You have managed to bang yourself up quite nicely.”
“Just go,” he told her. He jerked his head slightly, mindful of the pole and shifted his eyes to the hand held inside her jacket in emphasis. “You don’t need to do that.”
“Maybe I don’t, maybe I do.”
“You don’t. Really, what do I know?” Don asked. He spelled it out, “You’ve given me the name of Michelle, probably made up on the spot. I don’t know where you are staying or even if you are staying on the mountain so I can’t track your credit cards. I don’t know if you came to the resort by car or by bus. I don’t know how you came to British Columbia or even where you come from, your accent is muddied. I have seen your face but even with the best sketch artist all they’d be able to tell is you’re attractive and aged in your late-thirties.”
An eyebrow quirked up at the estimation of age, “Late-thirties?”
Don didn’t answer that, he’d not felt the need to flatter her. He pulled out his trump card, “I may not be Royal Canadian Mounted Police but I am an FBI agent and that still carries weight here. You kill me they will pull out all the stops to find you.”
“I kill you they won’t know to look for an attractive woman in her late-thirties that looks familiar to you,” Michelle pointed out.
She had him with that one. He stared up at her in silence wondering if there was anything else he could say to save himself when she pulled her ski pole away from his neck and shoved it into the snow beside her.
“Left hand, under your head,” she ordered.
He moved slowly, lifting his arm and sliding his hand under his head, discovering in the process that he was still wearing his helmet. She unzipped her jacket further, exposing the gun hanging from a shoulder holster and he barely breathed. Instead of drawing the gun however Michelle bent down and pulled at the zipper on his jacket, zipping it back up. Finding that odd for someone about to kill him he held still and started to hope that despite her last comment he’d made a convincing argument. She brushed the back of her hand gently against his cheek before standing.
“Pity,” she started, smiling sadly down at him. “I wish I’d met you under other circumstances.”
Coming to only one conclusion from that Don closed his eyes and sent his apologies to Robin and his family. Hearing the sound of a zipper and not the release of a safety on a gun he opened his eyes again to see Michelle pulling her glove back on, her jacket zipped closed over her weapon. She returned his gaze and he knew she had understood his reaction to her last statement. Leaving him hanging she finished getting herself ready, pulling the straps from her poles back over her wrists. Finally she lowered her goggles back over her face and Don noted they had a clear lens unlike the ones she’d been wearing earlier and he figured she must have carried a second pair in her jacket.
“If you were anyone else I would have killed you by now,” she finally said in answer to his unspoken question. “But as you pointed out, you’re FBI. Killing a cop is even less smart than leaving one alive as a witness, especially one who doesn’t know enough to find me.”
Don nodded slightly in agreement, not wanting to speak and somehow change her mind.
Michelle accepted his nod then added, “But if you do try to push your luck I’ll find you first, Special Agent Don Eppes from Los Angeles.”
He didn’t need the threat to know that she knew more about how to find him than he did to find her. It wasn’t going to stop him from reporting everything he did know but, “Understood.”
She carefully stepped her skis backwards on the steep slope. Watching her go Don saw his skis had been shoved into the snow and were standing in an “X” pattern a few yards out into the run. His location had been marked.
“When I’m clear I’ll let the ski patrol know where to find you,” Michelle explained.
Surprised, there wasn’t anything he could say to that but, “Thank-you.”
Michelle turned and disappeared into the gloom.
Free now to move Don pulled his arm back out from under his head and readjusted his right arm to ease the ache in his shoulder. He felt around the top of his helmet and finding his goggles still attached to the clip on the back pulled them down over his face as protection against the elements. Tucking his chin down into the tall collar of his jacket he settled down to wait, there was nothing else he could do having left his cell phone back in his room.
He’d about decided that she’d lied and hadn’t called ski patrol when through the falling snow he saw lights descending slowly down the slope above him. He shouted and the patrol soon reached him but before he let them start work he convinced them to call the RCMP with a warning about the assassin.
The ski patrol medics were efficient and had him secured into their sled in short order. The run down took a while and he had to admire the skill at which the two medics controlled their own descent as well as that of the unwieldy sled. They made it to the bottom and the waiting ambulance safely, the blankets they’d wrapped around him holding off the worst of the chill. After giving a quick statement and a full description of Michelle to an RCMP officer he was loaded up and taken on the long ride to the nearest town and its hospital.
He didn’t want to think on how easy it would have been for her to have left him on the mountain to potentially die from exposure. In the assassin’s position he would have done just that, concealing his body with snow and allowing the fresh snow to hide all signs that it was anything more than a tragic accident. Whatever the reason Michelle had used to justify saving him, he was just thankful he was able to go home after a ski trip he wasn’t going to forget.
It wasn’t until he was being admitted to the hospital that he discovered his driver’s licence missing from his wallet.