Murder With Altitude: Chapter One

 

The body hung upside down, dangling against the rock face of one of the Flatiron outcroppings. At first I thought it was a climber, a hapless amateur tangled in ropes. Someone needed help.

Or maybe my eyes had fooled me. Flashes of May sunshine speckled the trail where my students and I ran and blinded me like a strobe light.

I dropped out of my running gait, thunked to a stop on the trail, and squinted at the spot of neon pink up ahead. Someone's jacket. That someone clung to the side of the gigantic slab of sandstone rising from the canopy of pine boughs. He or she wasn't moving.

I sucked in deep gulps of woodsy air. Over a mile high, there wasn't much oxygen to suck. Feeling dizzy, I waited for my students to catch up. A small group of us from Callahan's Karate had come out here on a training run today in one of Boulder's mountain parks, and I'd gotten too far ahead.

Because all along the way I'd had a dreadful feeling about that spot of pink that we'd kept glimpsing.
I waited a few more breaths, just in case my suspicion was wrong, but the rock climber in pink up there still didn't move.

She was dead.

My heart thumped, and I tore into my fanny pack, rattling through junk for my cell phone. Flipped it open.
No bars.

I defaulted into protective mother mode and whirled around in a one-eighty. Buster, my over-achieving thirteen-year-old student, nearly plowed into me.

"What's wrong, Ms. Letterly?" he said, running in place beside me.

"We have to turn around now."

"How come? Is there a bear?"

"Let's go." Farther away, from behind thick Ponderosa foliage, sounded the deep breathing and scuffing footsteps of struggling runners, my other students. They'd fallen farther and farther behind. Training for the Bolder Boulder was supposed to be an innocent rite of spring. Not a retrieval of bodies.

"Aw, do we have to go back already?" Buster's eyes widened with apparent dismay, and he bit his lip. "I mean...ma'am?"

"We have to find a place on the trail where there's cell phone reception." Reception faded in and out, this close to the pinkish sandstone geology that formed Boulder, Colorado's signature backdrop.

Buster's face twisted with questions that reflected his inner conflict. I could tell that he really wanted to ask me what the heck was going on, but his martial arts training taught him not to question any decision of his instructor.

Sure, I was his instructor, but I was also a mom. I'd learned to select my battles and turn a blind eye on a lot of the disciplinary slips that would warrant push-up punishment in another dojo. Not in my studio - Callahan's Karate. After only two months on the job, it still sounded good. My studio.

"You can do a round of drills while I make my call," I said.

"Yes, ma'am!" Buster's face shone at the mention of drills, but then his face always shone. He's the kind of kid who never comes to a full stop. He bobbed first to the right and then to the left, trying to look around me. "Hey! Wait! Is something wrong with that climber up there?"

I clamped my hand onto the shoulder of his sweat-dampened tee shirt. "We're turning around. Now."
He bobbed some more, craning his skinny neck farther. "Oh. My. God. I think she needs help."

"She's beyond our help."

"You mean... She's...dead?" His face twisted some more, and I thought he was going to cry.

"That's why we have to call for help. But I can't call without a signal. Move it!"

I didn't usually act Marine-like. At least not all the time. Only when I had to herd my cats. I would let them stray only so far. Most of my students were just budding adults, for goodness sake.

And then there was Lyle.

"Yes ma'am." Buster stumbled, whirling around and darting away, back down the trail the way we'd come.
I followed, tripping over each rock that I had glided across only moments ago. Now, my focus was shot. That let in the pain. My feet felt like they were on fire, pinched and scraped and twisted from the uneven terrain, uplifted with boulders. My legs were lead weights. My lungs wanted to explode, starved of oxygen.
   
Got to call 911.

I should've stayed home in the garden today, planting tomatoes.

Instead, I had to make a living. Someone had to be the grownup in my family and make the mortgage payments on our ritzy, north Boulder suburban home. Not my jerk soon-to-be ex-husband. Max had run off, leaving me in charge. But, hey. Two months into my new job, I was getting good at being in charge. Life was good.

Life could always be better.

"Buster!" I shouted as he disappeared, skidding around the switchback in the trail below. I was in pretty good shape for a middle-aged mom, but I couldn't keep up with him.

The trail butted up against the giant pieces of red-pink sandstone, shaped like their namesake, antique flatirons. Three main slabs of stone rose like skyscrapers from the tumble of the Rocky Mountains' Front Range, and then there were countless smaller chunks, like the one with the climber on it, soaring above our heads. Smaller, but they were still the size of multi-storied buildings. Usually, you saw climbers rappelling with ropes along the side of any of these Flatirons. Not bodies.

From where we'd started today's run, lower down at the trailhead, I'd seen the bright pink spot of color up there. I assumed then that it indicated one of the many rock climbers who are drawn to my hometown, a rock climber's heaven. After a half mile or so up the trail, the pink spot disappeared from view altogether, along with the Flatiron, because terrain got in the way. I worried, wondering if she was stuck. That's when I picked up my pace, drawing slightly ahead of my students.

Then the pink reemerged as I closed in, only a couple hundred feet away from the climber. No ropes held her. And I could see that she would never move again. I was pretty sure she was a woman, but in this college town, you could never be sure.

She looked like a broken doll with her red hair splayed between limp arms in her upside-down position.
Or a trapeze artist, the way her legs hooked into a crevice a hundred feet or so up from the base of the massive slab. Maybe five hundred feet down from the top.

Had she fallen that far?

By the time I rounded the bend, Buster was waving his arms at two of my other students, trying to lead them off the trail into a relatively flat and smooth area. What I liked about the kid was his take-charge nature. He was my highest ranked student, a high red belt soon to test for brown. He launched into jumping jacks, but the other two - fifteen-year-olds - didn't follow his lead. Jason, a blue belt, doubled over, groaning. Rachel, a green belt, flung herself into the tick-infested mahonia ground cover and moaned "Gawwwd."

"Where's everyone else?" I said, sliding on loose rocks beside the group. We'd started with a group of eight, meeting up at the trailhead about a mile back, and now there were three. I hoped we weren't disappearing like Ten Little Indians.

Rachel sipped from her fancy camel-back water carrier. "They quit ages ago."

Jason stood up. "They said to tell you not to wait for them. They're going back."

They should've told me personally at the last rest break, but I would deal with those issues later. I tapped my cell phone again. One bar. Moving out of my students' earshot, I punched in 911.

The dispatcher seemed more interested in my name - Nell Letterly - than my report. She instructed me to remain calm. I could do calm. No problem. But not in the forest with a dead body and adolescents whose safety I was responsible for. Including the ones who'd bailed.

Maybe I shouldn't have put Buster in charge of the training runs.

Or I should've vetoed his choice of this running route.

Nell, Nell... I could hear my sensei, Master Hwang's chiding voice in my head, always correcting my doubts, my number one weakness.

I breathed in deep, willing myself to relax. Training for black belt was more than just physical, more than endurance training, more than conditioning and strengthening. It was also about leadership and teamwork. In. Out. Okay. Time to push aside the doubts that always lurked at the back of my head, waiting to trip me up. Time to control my personal dragon.

"We'll take turns leading a few more rounds of exercises and stretches," I told my students with authority flowing along with my chi, my body's invisible energy. The dispatcher had said to stay here until the first responders arrived. It wouldn't be long.

Right.

"But can't we just rest for a while instead?" Rachel asked.

"We don't want our muscles to get tight," I said.

Jason smirked. "Make her do push-ups."

"Oh, go away." Rachel stuck out her tongue at him.

"You can't talk to us like that, Rache," Jason said. "We outrank you."

"Shut up."

I was about to intervene when Lyle staggered up the path.
   
"Whoa," he said, puffing. "It's the little ninjas."

Technically, Lyle was an adult. But he was a college student, studying some kind of physics, and his mind was not always in sync with the rest of his body. Besides that, he was my student. So I treated him like all the rest of the adolescents.

"I thought you gave up hours ago," Rachel said.

"You can't get rid of me that easy," Lyle said.

"No one's getting rid of you," I said. "We've been waiting for you."

"What took you so long?" said Jason. "Didn't your warp drive work?"

"No, stupid." Rachel rolled her chocolate brown eyes. "You don't know anything."

Lyle chuckled. "If I could build a warp drive, you think I'd be out here? I wouldn't have to go to school, and I wouldn't have to take karate, either, just to make girls go out with me."

Rachel squealed when Lyle advanced on us.

"Not you," he said. "Why would I want to go out with a baby?" He winked and glowed, like any adolescent with a crush, although maybe it was just perspiration. He smoothed a greasy clump of dyed-black hair, managing to muss everything into gluey spikes.

Rachel's face read "ewww."

"Seriously?" Jason asked.

"If you really want to know," Lyle said, "I was exploring multiple paths of the continuum."

"Huh?"

Lyle snorted. "You might try exercising your brains, as well as your bodies."

"Children," I said, adding a mom-like scolding tone to my sensei voice. "Black belts treat everyone with respect." Our goal was not just to earn the rank of black belt but also to adopt the black belt way of life.
Lyle ignored me. "Hey, Buster, couldn't you find any other adults to come along and baby-sit?"

Buster threw me a pleading look, pleading me to intervene on his behalf. I could tell that he was bursting to respond, but fearful that his retort wouldn't be appropriate, especially for his rank. He was probably right, but I wouldn't help him. I watched their drama play out. Martial artists had to learn how to handle themselves.
"Gimme ten push-ups," Buster said when I wouldn't save him.

Lyle slumped onto a rock instead. He might've been the only adult student here, but he was also the lowest ranked belt of this group, orange. According to our school's ranking system, orange was the third level for beginners. It must irk Lyle to know less about the martial arts than his juniors. He had the most to learn about proper martial arts attitude.

"You want to be buff, right?" Jason said. "'Cause you still got the hots for Fanny."

"Shut up, dude," Lyle said.

"She's the only reason you came along today, isn't it? You thought Fanny would come with us, too, 'cause she's going to run the Bolder Boulder, and she likes to train in those sexy little outfits."

A flush crept up Lyle's neck and engulfed his face. I didn't think it was entirely from his lack of conditioning. I positioned myself between Jason and Lyle, so that if they came to blows, they'd have to get past me first.
"How do you know that?" Rachel said. "I haven't seen Fanny in like forever."

"Fanny?" I glared back and forth at Jason and Lyle and wished that Search and Rescue would hurry up. "Who's that?"

"She came to karate back when Mr. Valencia was still there," Buster said.

"Only because she had the hots for him," Jason said.

"Shut up, dude," Lyle said.

I lifted my eyebrows. I was still cleaning up the various messes that Valencia, my ill-fated predecessor, had left behind in the studio before his untimely end. One of his problems had been womanizing. "Really? So, how old is this Fanny?"

"Don't worry," Rachel said, "she goes to college. But Jase is like so wrong. Fanny thinks she's way too cool for us high school brats. She's such a b - " Rachel clamped her hand over her mouth. "Oops, can't say that word."

"You're just jealous," Lyle said.

"Am not," Rachel said. "I work my butt off. Why else would I be out here with you nerds?"

"Okay," I said, "let's focus on what we're doing here today. We're conditioning not only for the Bolder Boulder but for the next belt test. And each of you is due to test." It would be the first test for me to conduct for my students. I'd scheduled it for two and a half weeks from now, which would put the test a few days before the ten-k race that Boulder hosts every year over Memorial Day weekend. Those events would kick off the new summer program for the karate studio, pun intended.

"Wait, that's who it is!" Buster shouted.

"Who is?" Rachel asked.

"That dead girl, hanging up there from the Flatiron." As soon as the words slipped out, Buster's eyes rounded. His face paled, and he looked about ready to faint.

I enveloped him in a hug. "I phoned the authorities, and they're on the way."

"What dead girl?" Lyle said.

Rachel squealed. "Someone's dead?"

Jason's jaw dropped open.

"Fanny?" Lyle shouted, as if he could make the dead woman hear. He lurched off his rock and charged forward, pushing past me, brushing my fingers off of Buster's shoulder. Then he plunged into the shrubs, bypassing the trail, and clawed his way straight up the side of the hill.

I wasn't keen on the idea of trampling baby growth in the underbrush, scattering quails, or waking up hibernating snakes. Buster, Rachel, and Jason scrambled away after Lyle, following him with renewed interest. I looked around but didn't see any "stay on the trail" signs, so I shrugged and charged after them.
The main path we'd left a half mile or so lower down on the mountain was a seven-mile freeway clogged with tourists. It ran more or less north and south, parallel to the base of the Front Range. Off-shoot trails, like the one we'd chosen, headed west, up toward the Flatirons.

We didn't tree bash long, thank goodness. Soon, the dash up the side of the hill opened onto one of the side trails. Maybe the one we'd been following, maybe another.

From around the bend ahead, I heard yelps and stifled cries. Apparently they'd found her.
When I caught up to them, Lyle was already free climbing up the angled jumble of rocks, closer to the body. Jason doubled over, and Buster upchucked into the bushes. Rachel hung back, whispering omigod!
The sight of the poor dead girl made me stumble, and I echoed Rachel. Omigod!

Then I steeled myself and called to Lyle. "What are you doing? Come down before you fall!"

He'd reached the end of the split in the rock where he was scrambling and had only covered half the distance to the body. His face went pasty white, and he sank down into a crab-like crouch.

"You little punks!" He shouted down at us, as if we were somehow to blame for everything, including her death.

But he didn't move from his ledge.

"Omigod," Rachel said with a wail. "I didn't mean all those mean things I said about her."

Buster stood up, wiping his mouth. "Fanny's been gone from class such a long time. I thought she moved away."

I scooped both Rachel and Buster into my arms, trying to divert their view of the body. Some purple puffiness splotched her neck above the collar of her jacket. Was that natural? I was no expert in matters of death. Although there were some who would beg to differ on that. Of course, I didn't let my students know any more of my personal history than I had to tell them. Enough circulated already in gossip.

"Fanny's been gone because she switched to Kim's Karate," Jason said, leaning one arm against a tree trunk, as if he needed extra support. "Besides, you don't know it's her. We're too far away to see her good."
Rachel squirmed free from my arms and said, "Fanny has red hair, and pink is her favorite color."
That settled that.

Then Lyle moaned. "What's wrong with her face?"

* * * * *

A pair of open space rangers arrived and identified themselves as Rock and Oriana. I swear to God. Not so unusual for a place like Boulder. They'd already been in the area, they explained, checking up on reports called in about possible campers. Search and rescue wasn't far behind. Although, both the emergency and search elements were past. Rock and Oriana would take over for now.

As their names suggested, Rock was a stocky man, block-shaped, and all muscle. Oriana looked like a whisper next to him, hippie radiant and wasting-away thin. A dimple decorated her chin each time she smiled. I wasn't sure how she could smile so much at a death scene, but maybe she couldn't talk without smiling.

My students assaulted them with questions. Was the dead woman really Fanny? If not, then who was she? How'd she get there? How long had she been there? Was she really dead? How did she die? Why was her face swollen? They'd never seen a dead body before. How would search and rescue get her down?

Rock tuned out the questions and tromped over to the base of the Flatiron where he propped one boot up on the massive sheet of rock. He peered up its length, past where Lyle squatted. "Hmmm."

"If she was rock climbing," I said, peering up the slanted length to the cliff far above, "then where's her climbing gear? Where's her partner? Do you think she was climbing the Flatiron and then fell?" I shivered with horror, wondering if her bloating meant that when she'd fallen, she'd accidentally hanged herself. But then, where was the rope?

Rock shrugged. His voice rumbled in the baritone range. "Not all of these formations require ropes. Whatever she was up to, it was a deadly mistake."

"Her first mistake was not having at least a spotter along with her."

"Maybe she did."

"Then, where is he or she?"

"Good question." Rock stared at Lyle and narrowed his eyes.

"It wasn't him," I said, following his gaze to Lyle, huddled up there, clinging to rocks. "He wasn't with her. He was with us."

"The whole time?"

"Well, no. He met up with us on the trail. He had a class to go to, so he couldn't run the entire distance with us." I bit my tongue. I didn't have to explain any of this to a park ranger.

But I did wonder if Lyle's story was the truth. I'd suspected that because Lyle wasn't in as good shape as the rest of my students, he'd wanted to drive to a closer access than the trailhead Buster had chosen. Now, as I looked at him crouching up there in the rocks, after the way he'd sprinted up the side of the hill, I realized that Lyle was in better condition than I'd thought.

Meanwhile, Oriana, the more personable half of the pair, stayed busy writing down our names and contact information. "In case someone wants to talk to you," she said, flashing her dimpled smile.

"We don't know anything," Buster said.
   
"Well, you never know. Have you seen anyone out here who looked like they're camping?"

"You think some campers have something to do with this woman's accident?" I said.

"They're not allowed to camp in open space," Oriana said. "But maybe they saw something. Or, maybe she's one of them. Just sayin'."

"How do you know anyone was camping if they're not allowed to and you haven't seen them?" Jason asked.
"Some of the residents near the trailhead heard them and reported it. Someone was up here overnight, and I guess they were pretty noisy."

"Omigod!" Rachel said. "I heard them, too! My house is close to the trailhead. I thought someone was having a party up the street from my house. I didn't know it was coming from up here."

"Well, sound carries on the wind, and it whistles down and around these rocks," Oriana said, smiling.
I hoped this poor woman didn't fall because of some illicit overnight in the park.

Oriana asked us more questions about the specific time and location of our training run and took a few notes. She coaxed Lyle down from his perch and patiently listened to him and Rachel argue about Fanny. She refereed between us and the search and rescue team, once they arrived, and finally she told us we should go.

Released, we headed off down the trail, back the way we'd come, with Buster in the lead. He was determined to salvage something of our training run, and his pace was faster than the rest of ours. Suddenly he stopped and gasped. He held out his arms to either side, motioning us to stay behind him.

"What is it?" I asked, hurrying to his side.

"Don't move," Buster said.

As if I could.

Something coiled in a sunny spot in the middle of the trail. A snake, and its head lifted up, eyeballing us. Set to strike.

"Snake!" I shouted. Just because I'd grown up here in rattlesnake country, and just because I was supposed to be brave because I was a black belt, didn't make me any less terrified of snakes. Fear was irrational.
"Everyone hold still," said Lyle from somewhere behind me.

Then a loud crack split the air, ringing in my head. The snake shot into a barberry bramble. I whirled around. Lyle held a gun, pointing it at the sunny spot the snake had just vacated.