One Last Run

LEE SURIAH rushed through the harbor town from guide office to guide office, desperate to recruit help. His quick footsteps echoed off narrow brick roads and cozy buildings, shuttered and dark, shingles dripping from a recent sun shower.

Rounding a corner, he broke into a walk and fumbled to a stop, almost slipping in a puddle. The boarded windows of the Blue Summit Mountain Guide Office made his heart sink. 

Lifting arms, he laced his fingers on top of his head in despair. “This is the last office.” 

This can’t be the last one. He cast a glance up and down the street to find every last pane of glass shuttered, boarded, or both. I didn’t think they’d evacuate so fast.

“Can I help you find something?”

A man stood on the curb behind him with a large burlap sack over his shoulder. If not for the man’s painfully ordinary attire including worn indoor footwear and a curious, albeit blank expression, Lee would’ve suspected him of being a looter.

“Are any of the guide offices still open?” said Lee. “It’s an emergency.”

The man smiled like a soulless receptionist. “One is. This way.”

The man led the way to a modest storefront adorned with the painted green-and-white words:  

‘Moss Guides: Hunting, Mountain, Fishing, Adventure.’ 

Upon first glimpse of the sign, Lee blurted a curse that surprised his unenthusiastic escort, for which he quickly apologized, and then thanked the man before flying through the front door.

Fliers, posters and pamphlets about fish species and sightseeing lined shelves and bulletin boards along the walls.

He said he’d never move back here, thought Lee, cringing. Then again I can’t do this alone. 

Brushing aside mixed feelings brought on by the subtle scent of antique wood and fresh pine, Lee crossed to the counter and hit the bell. 

I don’t have the luxury to care if it’s him.

From the office door on the right emerged a familiar face. A less offensive, prettier face than Lee had expected. 

He blinked. “Aunt Allison.”

Allison Moss. Not Lee’s actual aunt, but a relative of the owner’s. “Lee! Look at you!” Beaming like a proud mother, she came around the counter for a hug that’d break a bear in two. “I haven’t seen you since you and Rory tried to kill each other with ice axes!” 

“Yes, ma’am.” I need to get to the point. “My nephew, Lewis, went to Manago Valley as a teacher with a humanitarian outfit and I wanna pull him out before the fighting gets there…”

Armed conflict had spilled into the Black Crystal Mountains, the range within view of the harbor town, from the neighboring region where the government had been overthrown and several armed factions vied for control. No one had believed Black Crystal, a popular outdoor adventure destination, would ever really be affected. Not until the distant clap of gunshots became more and more frequent, too close and out of season.

Lee went on, “But the guys with my guide company are either laid up with that virus or with injuries from our last hiking tour. We’d… gotten caught in some cross fire.” Which is why my and all the other guide companies, and everyone, have cleared out. “I know it’s dangerous and probably too much to ask–“

Allison didn’t seem to be listening. “When Lewis was a baby, his cheeks were so big he couldn’t open his eyes and smile at the same time. I bet he’s a lady killer now.” She grinned, years of experience as a special ops commander gleaming in her eyes. “Don’t gimme that face, he’s family. Let’s do it.” Moving behind the counter, she shouted at the office’s tapped door, “Jane! Kelsey! Rory’s former best friend is here with a job! We’re goin’ out!”

A younger version of Allison peeked out of the office, eyes shining. “LEE!”

Kelsey. Holy smokes. Lee smiled as she raced around the counter like a puppy on hardwood and pummeled him with the same warmth as her mother.

A third lady exited the office. Jane—Rory’s older sister and, in his opinion, the humblest and most badass tracker he’d ever met who could just as easily hunt down a deer’s ghost as knit sweaters for an army—smiled in passing as she followed Allison down a back hallway to prepare for the trek.

I’m getting the whole family. Reassurance calmed Lee’s raging anxiety to a nagging whisper. Now if we could take Rory’s skills without taking Rory, it’d be perfect.

Arms around Lee’s ribs, Kelsey turned bright green eyes turned upward, her chin digging into his chest. “All the guys left last week and Rory ‘ll be back tomorrow, so it’s just us right now.” At his look, she added, “He’s at the cape helping Mr. Sommer pack his house into his fishing boat. We’ll leave a note so he can catch up.”

Lee hesitated. The Moss Guide’s house rule for search and rescue gigs was for guides to go out in a 4-man team. 

“Can a client count as the fourth?” 

They have the rule of 4 for a reason. It’s a safety thing.

“We can take Kipp.” Stepping back, Kelsey looked toward the front door where the man with the burlap bag sat on a rickety chair, flipping through a small notebook. “Right, Kipp?”

The man read, blatantly ignoring her.

He came in behind me? Frowning, Lee lowered his voice. “Is he a guide?”

“He’s Rory’s new best friend, since you left. He doesn’t look like much but….” She lowered her voice, too. “Three years ago, when Rory’s group was captured and held in that prison camp in Safeaur, Kipp single-handedly broke them out, blew up the armory, and burned everything down. He even managed to roll the camp’s trucks off a cliff!” 

Lee was hardly sure whether to be impressed or disturbed. 

Studying Kipp, Kelsey smiled with a lovesick sigh. “He’s so awkward and adorable,” she said. “I’m gonna marry him one day but he doesn’t know it yet.”

Allison appeared in the hallway. “Hey, Doc, we need a fourth. You in?”

Kipp looked up. “Yes, of course.”

About to return to packing, Allison paused. “Oh, Lee, meet our fourth guide: Dr. Kipp Colditz. He knows who you are from Rory but don’t worry, he likes pretty much everyone. Isn’t that right, Doc?” She vanished into the back.

To the nod and hello from Lee, the oddly smooth skin about Dr. Colditz’s eyes crinkled mildly as though he was unaccustomed to smiling.

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