By Penelope Carroll

Gus doubled over when she crested the ridge, breathing hard and feeling a chilly wind sweep across her back, made chillier by the sheen of sweat covering her body. The clouds she had seen earlier were overhead now, and intermittent drops fell on her face as she looked up. It couldn’t be more than seven degrees, and with night approaching it was certain to fall to freezing in the next few hours. She strained to hear: could that be rotors?

Turning again to the well-worn hiking trail, a flash of red caught her eye, downhill to the right. About thirty meters down the tree-covered mountainside, she saw a solid object, large and dirty white with red markings. The rain was picking up, so after a quick look back the way she came, she decided to investigate, sensing a possible shelter from the coming storm. Fallen leaves made the way slippery, and as she approached she began to see the apparent form of a downed airplane. The tail, sporting the flash of red she had seen, had broken off and landed closer to the top of the ridge, while one wing propped the fuselage against the downhill slope and a pile of deadfall. The other wing was nowhere to be seen. The uphill door opened easily into the cabin, and for the first time in what seemed like hours, she could relax. And think.

She had no reason why she would have refused to meet Lavoie at Lake Paradox. As an analyst for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, she thought it perfectly normal that the head of counterintelligence would want to be briefed on the anomalies she had discovered. Though it did seem rather odd to ask her to meet him at this remote cabin on the US side, he apparently had known she was driving to Albany for her sister’s wedding. And seeing as he was on vacation, just a short detour off her route …

“How’s the spy business, Miss Murphy?” he said, a slight, bespectacled man, greeting her with a smile. Gus wondered if he had ever done anything but push papers for the service. Sure, she was a desk jockey herself, but she had kept up her physical training since her days in the Army, always preparing for some triathlon or MMA bout. In her early days, she had envisioned herself becoming the Jack Ryan of the CSIS. In reality, the most exciting thing that happened around the office was when some Mounties would drop by to tell about their run-ins with maple syrup smugglers.

The door to the cabin opened into a great room forming the entire west side of the house, glass doors leading to a deck that overlooked the lake. It was early December, too cold to sit outside, but a fire lent an ambience that, were Lavoie perhaps thirty years younger and charming, might well have been romantic. He sat across from Gus at the dining table and questioned her about her work, following leads that had been uncovered during the Valanov case ten years before. Gus had run across some troubling data that seemed to point to a possible Russian mole in their agency. Lavoie listened attentively, rubbing his chin and nodding occasionally.

When it seemed he had no more questions, Gus rose to look out on the lake. “Nice cabin. Rental?

“Safe house. We have a few this side of the border.”

Gus could hear Lavoie opening a drawer. She didn’t think anything of it until she saw a reflection of him approaching her from behind. Exasperated, she thought what a pain it would be if she had to file a sexual harassment claim against him when a wire snaked across her face. She just managed to get the fingers of her left hand between it and her neck, shocked at the force with which this small man was able to pull her back.

She pushed him hard against the table, then threw herself to the left to try and ram his head against the counter separating the kitchen from the dining area. Careening together toward the windows, she managed to grab a wrought-iron candelabra from a small table and swung it full force over her left shoulder. The garotte flew to the floor, and Gus rolled right, using the momentum to leap to her feet and head toward the door. Just as it opened, she felt Lavoie’s weight crash into her from behind, throwing them both onto the porch. She was surprised to hear a car moving up the gravel roadway, at the same time noticing the fingers of her left hand bleeding. She wondered what someone was doing here in the middle of nowhere this time of year.

She was quicker to her feet and managed a powerful roundhouse that sent Lavoie flying over the railing. Simultaneously, she heard a gunshot, and the post next to her head exploded. On autopilot now, she leapt down the stairs and sprinted across the road into the woods as two more gunshots rang out behind her. Struggling uphill through the dense forest, she eventually found a trail and paused. Listening for pursuers, she pulled off her hairband and wrapped it around her bleeding fingers which only now had begun to throb. She took off again at a marathoner’s pace, heading north for maybe five or six kilometers, and discovered the wreckage of this Beechcraft.

The rain was now pounding on the fuselage, and Gus found she could be grateful that at least she was dry. But she had nothing. Not even a breath mint in her pocket. It was now full dark, and she had no idea how far she might be from civilization. And she had to assume that Lavoie and whoever was in that car were following her, though she had probably messed him up pretty bad. There had been a lot of blood on the side of his head.

And was that footsteps? Or was it just the rain?