Extreme (Part 3)

By Don Winslow Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

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Extreme (Part 3):

ESCAPE (N.) 1: AN ACT OF BREAKING FREE FROM CONFINEMENT OR CONTROL 2: AN ACT OF SUCCESSFULLY AVOIDING SOMETHING DANGEROUS, UNPLEASANT OR UNWELCOME 3: A MEANS OF ESCAPING FROM SOMEWHERE 4: A TEMPORARY DISTRACTION FROM REALITY OR ROUTINE.

Execution is meaningless without escape.

There’s no point getting something if you can’t get away with it.

In this case, Kurt, Paige and associates have executed the removal of a billion dollars from a Russian arms dealer (the get) and now they’re trying to live to enjoy it (the getaway). So they’re “successfully” (well, hopefully) “avoiding something dangerous, unpleasant or unwelcome,” that is, getting shot to pieces—which, absent a suicidal urge, is all three.

The money itself, the cash, is already escaping in trucks to a laundry in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Paige, Kurt and Crazy Isaiah (one of the aforementioned associates) are now trying to surf their way in through a very big wave known as the Banzai Pipeline East to make it to shore at Cabo Blanco, Peru.

This is not easy.

(If escaping were easy, everyone would do it. See Thoreau, Henry David, “Lives of quiet desperation, most men.”)

Big-wave surfing is not easy.

(If big-wave surfing were easy, everyone…no, they wouldn’t.)

Kurt and Paige are doing it.

They’re on the edge, the lip, the blade of the ax of a very big wave blown up by a local wind known as el virazón.

(It’s been my experience that anytime anything is titled el instead of the, it’s a bad motherfucker. This is especially true of drug traffickers, but that’s literally another story.)

Ol’ el virazón has whipped this wave up to a little over 40 feet.

Not the biggest wave ever ridden, by any means, but consider this—

It weighs 500 tons and it’s moving at 70 miles per hour. So if you wipe out, fall off that board coming down the face, you’re going to smack into the water at 70, and then a million pounds of water are going to come down on top of you—dangerous, unpleasant and unwelcome.

Repeatedly, if this is the first of, say, a four-wave set.

That’s if you’re even alive after the washing machine has rolled you, bent you, bounced you, slammed you, burst your eardrums and/or ripped your joints out of your sockets. That’s if you’re even “lucky” enough to make it to the surface at all to let the next 500 tons crash on you, if you haven’t drowned already or become so disoriented (the eardrum thing) that you dive down instead of up.

But say you do make it to the surface.

Now you’re in something cheerfully called “the impact zone.” And no, this is not like “the splash zone” at SeaWorld, where they give you a plastic poncho and you get all wet when the whale smacks its tail into the water and everyone screams and laughs.

This is where, normally, someone would be risking his or her life to zoom in on a Zodiac and get you the hell out of there before the next wave comes down on both of you.

This is the problem for Kurt, Paige and Isaiah.

There is nobody in a Zodiac to pull them out of the impact zone. This is going to be strictly YOYO.

You’re On Your Own.

You vs. the Ocean.

And here’s the thing that every waterman does or should know:

The ocean does not care.

Anthropomorphisms aside, the ocean is going to do what it is going to do without regard or concern for you, your life, your life story, your concerns, your hopes, wishes, dreams or needs. You are a nothing, a cipher, a zero, an insignificant speck to even the smallest wave, never mind one of these mackers.

Even if it could care, it wouldn’t, it doesn’t.

This is what Kurt has always liked about waves—or for that matter mountains or sky—what he likes about physics.

Totally objective.

Now he glances at Paige, about to go over the top.

Hesitation kills.

The only thing worse than going over the edge of a wave like this is going over late. A slice of a second too late and you can’t get set on your board, you’ll pitch over forward and then you’re in for the whole tumble down the face from which you probably won’t be able to recover.

So Kurt’s relieved when he sees her launch.

Then he goes.

A wave is energy.

Literally. That’s what it is.

And a big wave is a lot of energy, and Paige feels it thrumming under her board as she makes the drop.

You have to survive the drop.

Survive that first almost vertical plunge and you can find a sweet spot in the wave, this one a big left-hander. Paige turns in to it, toward the curve of the barrel, and jets down at a diagonal, cutting a white line through the angry green water. The wave bounces under her, tries to throw her off, but this woman has balance from years of skiing, confidence that she can stay upright. Surfing is not her best thing—running, climbing and skiing are—but she is a world-class ultra-athlete and her body is usually going to do what she demands of it and now she demands that it stay on that board, and it does and then—

It doesn’t.

She hits a bump, an arbitrarily cruel ruffle that at 70 per is enough, and suddenly she’s not in the water, she’s in the air.

Kurt makes the drop.

Now he’s not thinking about Paige.

Let’s be honest here.

He’s thinking about survival.

His own.

He’s not even really thinking, he’s reacting. His muscles and nerves are working together to feel that wave under him and stay on it, and years of surfing, climbing and running have given his legs the strength to do it as—

The wave curls over him and he’s in the—

Famous tube, the greenroom, the barrel—

He reaches out his back hand to touch the water and then—

The water envelops him.

This is where a surfer can just disappear. A big wave swallows him (Jonah meets whale) and never spits him back out, at least not alive. If you’re watching from the outside, the surfer is just gone, that’s all, all you see is water and all you can do is wait and hope, and now—

The wave shoots him out the tube, fast and hard, and he stays on until it’s all white water, jumps off and turns to try to see Paige and Isaiah.

Isaiah he sees, wading in, all six-seven of him hard to miss.

He doesn’t see Paige.

Look, if stealing a billion bucks were easy, everyone would do it, not just Wall Street cocksuckers and Congress.

(You steal a mere billion in lower Manhattan or D.C., you a small-change chump, Charlie.)

So in addition to the wave issue, Kurt, Paige and Crazy Isaiah have another problem—a go-fast boat with three angry and armed Russians (one of them being Yegor Chubaiv, former owner of said billion dollars) coming their way at speed from the 535-foot yacht that used to contain the cash.

Yegor is pissed.

(a) It’s his money.

(b) He believes his stepson Lev was in on it.

© He further believes that what’s his is his and what’s yours is his. (See above, Wall Street cocksuckers and Congress.)

The go-fast is bouncing like goofy crazy and Yegor doesn’t figure it’s going to catch the miscreants, because they left (escaped, if you will) in his helicopter, adding the proverbial insult to the proverbial injury, not to mention another hundred mil to the tally.

Then he sees his helicopter.

Well, remnants of it.

Busted up, floating on the swell.

As are random $100 bills.

This makes Yegor even angrier.

What cheers him up a little is that he also sees a corpse, in a life jacket, and the last time he saw this man, the man was flying his helicopter off the deck. So this is justice of a sort, but it’s also very bad news because the chopper was carrying—

(a) The thieves that Yegor wanted to kill himself.

(b) His stepson, allegedly as a hostage, though Yegor doesn’t believe it for a second, but nevertheless it is going to play hell with his sex life when he has to inform stepson’s mother.

© Worse, much worse, the billion dollars in cash, which is now sinking into very deep water in a very strong current.

Good that the bastards have received their just deserts, bad that they’ve taken his unjust deserts with them.

Yegor is very rich, but every little billion counts.

The go-fast boat pulls up.

“You think there are any survivors?” he asks his guys.

“In these seas?” one of them answers. He wants to go back to the 535-foot yacht because, fuck it, it’s not his money.

“Sons of bitches,” Yegor says.

Lev doesn’t ride a wave, he rides a billion dollars.

In the back of one of Alvaro’s trucks headed for one of Alvaro’s tame banks.

This is not because Lev is a coward or a shirker—quite the opposite—but because he has a task to perform before hooking back up with Paige and Kurt: Make sure that Alvaro (a.k.a. Señor Clean) sends the billion electronically around the world a few times and then home again.

For the fee of five percent of a billion, which is….

Which is….

(Ah, fuck it, you work it out; if I’d majored in math I wouldn’t be doing this.)

In line with this objective, Army Ranger (retired) Woody Barnes sits in the front seat of the lead truck beside Alvaro with a Remington shotgun pointed at Alvaro’s neck. If anything goes wrong, the first thing to blow will be Alvaro’s head.

Off his shoulders.

It’s not a matter of trusting Alvaro—you’d have to have the collective IQ of a Westboro Church executive board meeting to trust Alvaro—but as Woody puts it—

“I trust two things in life. Myself and my dog. Unless I have a bone in my hand, then I trust myself.”

Well said, Woody.

Everything so far has gone pretty much according to plan. Oh, there have been a few wrinkles, but what’s life without a few distractions from reality or routine?

There are also a few things Lev doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know, for instance, that their pilot, Dave Davids, was killed while fake crashing the chopper into the ocean.

And he doesn’t know that Kurt and Crazy Isaiah have plunged back into said ocean (having just escaped it) in a desperate attempt to get Paige out.

Adele did a song called “Rolling in the Deep.”

All respect and love to a great singer, but Adele doesn’t know dick about rolling in the deep.

No one knows about rolling in the deep until a 40-foot wave actually rolls you in the deep and won’t let you up, and then you don’t care about your boyfriend dumping you or the scars of his love, none of that matters, you just want a breath.

A breath.

Not a lot to ask, but a lot to receive when you’re 15 feet under 500 tons of water.

Rolling.

Paige knows about it. There’s that old expression about “not knowing up from down”? She doesn’t. How could she when she’s been rolling at high speed for 200 yards? Then the rolling stops so she can start to find her way up to the surface. The question is, which way is up?

What you can’t do in this situation is what your body wants to do.

Panic.

You panic here, your heartbeat accelerates and burns up oxygen your lungs desperately need. Panic here and make one bad decision and you’re dead.

Paige doesn’t panic.

You could put that on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker and shorten it up if you want—“Paige Don’t Panic”—not in a free fall, not on a cliff face, not running in Death freaking Valley and starting to burn up from the inside.

Paige Don’t Panic.

What she does is grab her leash.

The leash is a cord Velcro’d around her ankle and attached to the board, and there’s one thing that Paige is sure of—the board will always eventually go up, not down.

(Ah, physics.)

So Paige pulls herself up (otherwise she’d be pushing, no?) on the cord, knowing that the surfboard is by now bobbing on the surface. Her lungs feel like they’re going to explode, but she’s trained all her life to ignore feelings and then she plunges through and grabs.

That breath.

That lovely, lovely breath she’s going to need because she sees—

The next wave coming down on top of her.

Paige grabs another breath and dives under.

Kurt sees her headstone.

This is not as morbid as it sounds—a headstone in this context is the top of a surfboard bobbing above the water.

It’s not a bad sign or for that matter a good one. It could mean that the leash snapped and Paige could be anywhere. It could also mean that she’s unconscious under the board.

But it’s the only chance he has, so he swims toward it.

So does CI, a much stronger swimmer and waterman.

Problem is, by the time they can fight their way into the white water, it’s washed the board away and they have to start looking again.

Three more times.

Waves crash on Paige and she goes under.

The board lurches and takes her on a ride, and she thinks of trying to bend forward—a sit-up against tons of rushing water—and unhook herself, as the board is now a possible blessing or a curse. It’s dragging her around, but it’s also her orientation to “up,” and it could be seen by her friends, if indeed theymade it to shore.

Three times she takes as much air into her lungs as she can and goes under, knowing she’s going to be under for a long time. The last time she doesn’t think she’s going to make it—the board takes her for a sled ride and then she feels the damnedest thing on her back.

Sand.

Paige gets her feet under her and forces herself up.

Stands in knee-deep white water, doubles over, gasps for air, then straightens up to find Kurt and CI.

Sees them out in the water, looking for her.

Paige waves her arms and yells.

“Guys! I’m on the beach!”

Beautiful words.

Always.

If you’re on the beach.

Out of the water.

And people are after you.

Even if you’ve given them reason to believe you’re dead.

There’s only one thing to do.

Run.

They take a few minutes to get their breath, then drag their boards into the brush near the beach. This is a hot surf spot, especially when the waves are up, so no one is going to think anything of it.

Then they walk up the beach until they come to the place where they’d tucked the equipment away. One sat phone. Running shoes. Running packs. Shorts. Shirts. Hats. Energy gel. Water.

A lot of water.

They strip out of their wet suits, change and take off.

Well, not Crazy Isaiah.

CI has this thing about getting too far from the ocean, like more than a few thousand yards. He wasn’t on the yacht, no one saw him, and if they do launch a search, it will concentrate on Isla Puná, where a plane took off and didn’t return. So he’s going to hang out for a day, catch a few waves, just another surf bum, then fly back to Kauai.

“We’ll send your share when it’s clean,” Kurt says.

“I’m not worried.”

“You’re going to be one very rich kanaka.”

“I already am one very rich kanaka,” CI says. He has the ocean, food to eat, a place to sleep.

Crazy Isaiah might be the sanest person you’ll ever meet.

Now he wishes them aloha. “Take good care. I don’t want to do a paddle-out for you.”

He walks away.

They start to run.

Paige takes the lead.

The pacesetter.

Off the beach, through the strip of scrub brush and then into the Sechura Desert, the northernmost section of the Atacama, the driest place on earth.

They’ve run desert before, the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley. This is nothing like that. The temps at the Badwater spike at 120—in the Sechura, the highest temp is going to be about 100, but in the morning coastal fog it’s only 75.

But they have the same distance to go—130 miles to cross before they hit the Andean foothills.

Right—that’s five marathons.

Which is, like, crazy.

But that’s the point.

They go cross-country to stay away from roads, so anyone chasing them is going to have to do it on foot.

Which they won’t.

And if they would, they couldn’t.

That’s the point of being an elite ultra-athlete.

Simply put, you can do things that other people can’t.

If Paige and Kurt get across this band of the Sechura into the foothills, they will have simply disappeared. Then they’ll be open-field runners in a very big field (the world) and ain’t no one going to identify them, much less catch them.

So they run.

Paige has long been of the belief that the secret to life is very simple and can be summed up in two words—

Left, right.

One foot after the other.

Take the next necessary step.

Left, right, left, right.

This most basic of human activities—running, walking—balances not only the body but the mind and spirit. Paige read that running has become a treatment for PTSD and depression, that the repetitive bipedal activity cuts new neuroplastic grooves in the brain, rewrites the cortical maps, centers the mind in the balance of left and right—the sensorimotor rhythm that produces calming alpha waves.

A biophysicist, Paige knows the chemistry—when you run, your body releases phenylalanine, dopamine and serotonin, which all make you feel good.

Run long enough, you go into the zone.

A higher state of consciousness.

You get insights, even visions.

Bliss.

Euphoria.

She’s not there yet.

Not even close.

Her problem right now is another chemical.

Adrenaline.

More specifically, adrenaline dump.

Within the last few hours, Paige has wingsuited from an airplane into a cold ocean, swum to a boat—where she killed a man who was trying to kill her—then survived a big-wave wipeout.

Her adrenaline surged to freakish levels to allow her to do (survive) all that, but now that adrenaline is saying, “Enough is enough.” (The logic behind this bromide is irrefutable—if enough weren’t enough, it wouldn’t be enough.)

The human body is designed to respond to a threat or crisis—the cliché mother lifting the truck off her child—but then it’s designed to

Crash

Hard.

Not run five marathons across a desert.

So the chemicals coursing through her body are telling her to lie down, the chemicals in her brain urging her to keep going.

Yup—mind over matter.

Left, right, left, right.

She does what she’s always done—

Take the next necessary step.

Kurt, fighting the same battle, in rhythm behind her.

Left, right, left, right.

The secret to life.

While Paige and Kurt are running,

The money is zooming.

Digitally racing around the world, switching currencies like dozens of Supermans changing in multiple phone booths (Remember them? And where does Clark Kent change now?), shape-shifting from real estate to stocks to cash, splitting apart and coming together amoeba-like, ending up in numbered accounts in several locations around the world—minus, of course, Alvaro’s five points—and he does all this sitting at a computer in the back room of a Guayaquil bank.

Alvaro gives Lev some code numbers and says, “Try it.”

Lev tries it.

And gets access to $10 mil in Zurich.

“Another,” Alvaro insists.

Twenty mil in Paraguay.

“Now you change the codes,” Alvaro tells Lev. “I don’t want to know them and be accused of unethical behaviors.”

He sniffs at Woody.

Woody’s share comes to $100 mil, divided into five accounts. Half of that is going to find its way to paralyzed veterans.

Lev, coming as he does from a Russian family of dubious economic means, is no slouch himself when it comes to the money-moving business, does his thing.

He and Woody say good-bye in the street.

Woody is on his way to the airport. Fly to L.A., then to Chicago, then to Denver before he heads back to his cabin in the mountains just to make sure his track is clean.

“You sure,” he asks, “you don’t want me to come with you?”

Lev shakes his head. “There is nothing to do now but run.”

Words to live by.

Or die by, if you’re running in the desert.

No, we’re not going to do the whole running-out-of-water, staggering-toward-the-mirage-of-a-lake thing, don’t worry.

Water is an issue, of course.

Paige and Kurt “hydrated” before they started their run, not making the mistake that a lot of desert crossers do—ration their water and drop from dehydration with water in their canteens.

The Sechura is crossed by thousands of little streams, seasonally dry but now refreshed by el virazón. Kurt has a water purifier in his pack so they can suck the life-sustaining fluid from the shallow beds and get a drink every 20 or so miles.

The sun could kill them.

It’s 90 now, the sun is unrelenting, but they find shade under the occasional carob tree or sloping rock, and they’re smart enough to stop, rest and let their body temperatures lower.

Take off their shoes, treat the blisters, bandage the raw, bloodied soles of their feet. They knew this was a danger, going straight from saltwater into the desert run—not so bad if it were your basic triathlon—but now the salt on their skin is starting to burn and crack on their feet, their faces, their lips.

Getting their shoes back on hurts like hell.

Getting up to run again hurts worse.

But they do it.

Left, right, left, right.

They run across this desert of grays and duns because the essential difference between elite athletes and the others is not always physical but mental.

There are some billionaires who are morons (see Babies, Trust Fund) and this is mostly a matter of ankle-deep genetic pools, but Yegor Chubaiv is not one of these. He’s a self-made oligarch who came up the hard way (in the armaments trade there is no soft way), and now as he sits on his boat being unceremoniously towed into Guayaquil, Yegor doesn’t waste a lot of time or energy brooding about his lost billion and his son-of-a-bitch, no-good, stinking ingrate of a stepson—he thinksabout them instead.

Some helicopter wreckage.

One body.

Some money floating on the water.

And he plays the game beloved of dreamers, screenwriters and self-made billionaires—

What if?

What if the helicopter didn’t really crash?

What if the thieves made it to shore with my money?

What if I could track the bastards down?

Being of a practical bent, Yegor’s next questions focus on the question—

How?

To answer this, he goes through the same process that the robbers did, identifying problems and then solving them. He looks at charts and maps and then—

Irena interrupts.

Forty-eight hours, she says, before the robbers release Lev.

“Lev’s not coming back,” Yegor says.

“How can you say such a thing?” Irena screams.

“Lev is not coming back,” Yegor repeats to irritate her, “because Lev was in on it.”

“In on what?”

It’s lucky for her she’s very good in bed. “On the robbery.”

“How can you think that?”

Then again, no one is that good. “Please go away now, I’m working.”

She does and he goes back at it. By the time they’re tying his crippled yacht up to the dock, Yegor has an answer.

Kurt and Paige stop late afternoon of the first day.

Eat a couple of protein bars and sleep for three hours under a shelf of rock. Then they get up, suck down energy gels and more water, strap on their headlamps and run in the cool dark.

With the sleep and the absence of sun, it feels like a new life.

They run all night and through the relative cool of the morning, then find shade again and rest.

This is what most desert animals do, and it works for them.

Lev gets on a bus.

That wends its way from Guayaquil into the Andes.

East to El Tambo, where he changes buses for the southern route.

To Azogues, then Cuenca and Saraguro.

The mountains to his left are tantalizing as he heads for Loja.

To meet Paige and Kurt.

Pain is a great teacher.

What it mostly teaches is that pain is bad.

There are nobler lessons—perseverance, change (to avoid cause of said pain), compassion—but mostly what it teaches is that if you can do things to avoid, lessen or eliminate pain, it’s the better idea.

Most human progress is, in fact, based on the avoidance, lessening or elimination of pain.

Here’s Alvaro’s problem.

He can’t give up code he doesn’t know.

He can’t say where Lev has headed because he doesn’t know that either. (Which brings us to the old “ignorance is bliss” bromide—yeah, not necessarily.) So Alvaro’s getting an education in pain, but there isn’t anything he can do to escape it.

We’re not going to get into details on what kind of pain he’s in because this isn’t “torture porn,” and what’s the point?

Suffice to say that Yegor knows how to hurt people, Alvaro wants him to stop, but all he can do is point down the street (with his thumb) and say, “He went that-a-way.”

Which may or may not be enough.

On the topic of pain.

Paige and Kurt are in it.

A world-class male ultramarathoner finishes the Badwater in about 25 hours, the best women in about 30.

But that’s with a support crew supplying them with water, food, medical treatment, encouragement and guidance.

Not out there basically alone, after having already been through an ordeal. So Kurt and Paige aren’t making—aren’t even trying to make—that kind of time.

They run for two days.

With breaks for sleep and to avoid the worst of the heat.

Coming into the 40 hours, they are hurting.

Feet blistered, raw and sore, legs aching, lips cracked, skin peeling, their whole bodies bone weary.

A part of Kurt wants to quit.

Give up and die.

Paige won’t let him.

Makes him take the lead.

Gets in behind him, foot for foot and chants her mantra.

Left, right.

Left, right.

One foot after the other.

Take the necessary step,

Then the next one.

But now you’re past the zone,

Past the realm of insight and higher consciousness into the world of

Lower consciousness.

Near your lizard brain, it’s no wonder

So many religions have emerged from the desert, the landscape of sere rock and sun, of stillness, of vision and hallucination.

Left, right, left, right.

Left, right, left, right.

Sun gods.

In this quiet, in this space, you hear and see things that aren’t there but are, either out there or in your head and then there’s no difference anyway.

Left, right.

Left, right.

There’s only pain and perseverance,

The cry of a bird, the rustle of a lizard.

You know what it means to be one with nature.

It means you’re dead,

In the earth.

Left, right.

Left, right.

And then for Kurt there is only sun and sky,

And then only sun.

It calls to him,

Like a god.

Like God.

And he wants to go,

Fade upward,

Skyward,

Toward the sun.

Toward his life and death.

And then Kurt sees green.

The green of grass and trees and water and life.

Left, right.

Left, right.

He hears Paige laugh.

Guayaquil is a big city—2 million people—but there are only so many ways in and out.

Yegor has the people and connections to run them all down.

Lev didn’t take a flight out.

Ditto train.

Which means he’s still in the city (doubtful) or he drove, or he took a bus. At the bus station, a clerk remembers someone matching his description buying a ticket to El Tambo. In El Tambo they confirm that he got on another bus to—

Loja sits in a valley.

The valley of Cuxibamba, which Paige thinks is exotic and pretty.

So different from the desert, this cloud forest and jungle, jumping-off point for the conquistadors into the Amazon basin.

It makes Kurt almost green-sick, this sudden lushness, this altitude over a mile high. And civilization, a city with a quarter million people, two universities, parks, museums, theaters, cathedrals.

Out of the desert now, life seems more like life.

But it takes a little adjustment.

Lev was safely in Loja waiting for them in an out-of-the-way hotel bar. They sit down to beers, and Kurt tells him about Dave’s death.

“It’s a shame,” Lev says. “I was very much hoping.…”

“I know,” Kurt says. “What should we do with his share?”

“There’s a daughter, isn’t there?” Lev asks. “From one of the marriages?”

Paige asks, “What are we going to do? Just go up to her and give her $100 million?”

“We could start a trust fund,” Lev says. “Something about her father’s insurance. Inject money into it a little at a time.”

“Something like that,” Kurt says.

“They must have known he led a dangerous life,” Lev says.

“And that’s it?” Paige asks. “We raise a beer to him and say ‘So long’?”

“What else do you want to do?” Kurt asks.

What else is there to do?

They’re much too tired to make love.

Kurt and Paige lie in the cool sheets in their room, after their third shower of the day, and try to go to sleep. You would think it would be easy, given their exhaustion, but it isn’t.

Finally, Paige gets to it. “I killed someone.”

“He was going to kill you.”

“I put us into the situation.”

“Not by yourself.”

“That doesn’t change it,” Paige says. “At all.”

“Let it go, Paige.”

“Fuck you.”

They lie there in silence and sleep fitfully with dreams that aren’t nightmares but neither are they sweet. Wake up before dawn with the realization they have bought wealth at too high a price, and that they were freer before, and all their escapes will be but temporary distractions from that reality.

“Where are you going to go now?” Paige asks as she watches him get dressed. They’d had clothes and equipment shipped to this hotel.

“I thought we were a we,” Kurt answers.

“I don’t know that we can be together after this.”

“I’m going to Chimborazo,” Kurt answers.

Before Everest was discovered, it was thought to be the highest mountain in the world. At 20,702 feet, given the equatorial bulge, its summit is the farthest point from the center of the earth.

The farthest point from the center of the earth.

That’s extreme.

“I thought we were going to do that only if we were being chased,” Paige says.

The final exigency plan. If they didn’t shake the pursuit in the ocean or the desert, run to the most extreme of terrains, drag the chasers into territory that you can handle and they can’t.

Kurt shrugs. “We’re here. Lev and I thought we’d give it a try. You’re coming with us, right?”

“I don’t know now.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know all of a sudden,” Kurt snaps.

“I’m starting to think there’s a lot you’ve never known.”

“Clever.”

“Well, I’m the smart girl.”

He sits on the bed and pulls on his boots. “I’m going downstairs to have breakfast. We’re leaving in two hours from out front. I hope you’re there. If not, it’s been great, Paige. The best part of my life.”

She says nothing as he walks out.

It was the best part of my life too, she thinks.

Asshole.

Kurt’s legs hurt as he goes down the stairs.

Life without Paige?

It’s surreal.

As is the idea that they

Got away with it.

The money’s in the bank(s), there’s been no pursuit, and he’s free to do anything he wants for as long as he lives.

Freedom.

It’s unreal.

Well, fuck yes, it is.

Lev is pressed against the wall of his room.

By three of his stepfather’s men.

“The codes to the bank accounts,” Yegor says.

“No.”

“And I want your friends.”

“Again, no.”

“You have no idea,” Yegor says, “the pain we can inflict.”

“You sound like bad cinema,” Lev answers. “So let me match it: I can take anything you dish out.”

Yegor asks, “Perhaps, but can that tedious slut who bore you?”

In Hamlet, his mother Gertrude does get killed.

But it wasn’t Hamlet who did it.

Kurt piles equipment into the old truck.

Paige hasn’t shown up, but neither has Lev.

The first no-show surprises Kurt, the second doesn’t.

Lev is what they used to call a ladies’ man, what they now call a player (or playuh), and has doubtless hooked up and will soon come tumbling out the door, hopping on one foot (agreed, one rarely hops on two) while putting his shoe on the other.

Kurt has often thought that what will kill Lev is not a hand slipping off a rock face but a vitamin E deficiency, that he’ll simply drop dead one day staggering out of a hotel room in postcoital stupefaction.

So he’s sure Lev is going to show up eventually.

Paige?

Could go either way.

She’s stubborn.

Her moral code carved in marble.

Kurt is not without feeling. In fact, he feels terrible that he put her in a situation where she had to violate that code. He knows she’s hurting, knows she’s going to hurt for a long time.

But he’s also a realist who believes that you live in the present or not at all.

You spend too much time looking back at your mistakes, you’re not looking at what’s in front of you, and in his world of extreme sports that—

Can get you killed.

He’s also a great conserver of energy.

Energy is valuable and finite.

It should be applied to the challenge at hand.

Not wasted on regrets.

Apparently Paige has come to the same conclusion, because now she strides out the front door with a duffel bag of equipment slung over her shoulder. She tosses the bag into the truck and gets behind the wheel.

“Where’s Lev?” she asks.

Kurt’s look is one of inquiry.

“I’m as far away from the center of my emotional earth as I can be,” Paige explains. “Maybe if I go there in actuality, it’s the way back.”

It’s a metaphysical explanation, Kurt thinks.

But an explanation.

A few minutes later Lev emerges from the hotel.

Hopping on one foot.

They drive to 15,000 feet and hike the next 1,000 up to the base shelter.

Chimborazo has four summits, but they’re only interested (of course) in summiting the highest.

Whymper Peak.

The plan is to leave at 10 p.m. and take the southwest route through El Corredor (which sounds more ominous than the Corridor, no?) past Castle Rock, then summit by 10 a.m.

The timing has to do with weather. Typically, it gets warmer in the late morning, the sun starts to melt snow and ice, sending huge rocks tumbling down the slope, especially from the Castle, which, Paige observes, is exactly what people in castles used to do when they were under siege.

So it behooves you to be out of the rock zone before this happens.

The climb to the summit is no joke.

(“A minister, a priest and a rabbi decide to go up Chimborazo. And the minister says.…”)

The route is extremely steep, cold, windy, covered in various depths of wet snow, and El Corredor is often covered with black ice, which is not good because it’s a narrow little corridor with a 1,000-foot straight drop on either side.

So slipping is not a good idea.

They have the necessary equipment and now they unpack it. They check and double-check it.

The key to clothing is layers.

Outdoor Research wicking T-shirts, long-sleeve base layers and thin insulating layers; Ferrosi soft-shell jacket and a down jacket with a hood. Schoeller climbing pants, WinterTrek fleece hats with Ninjaclava hoodies; StormTracker liner gloves under OR heavy gloves, Koflach climbing boots, SmartWool socks, Petzl Snowalker ice axes, Black Diamond crampons, Ecrin Roc helmets, Julbo sun goggles, Tikka XP headlamps, Trango Piranha knives.

Lev takes something else out of his bag.

An HK MP5-N machine pistol.

Kurt stares at it.

“I have to tell you something,” Lev says.

The plan is to kill them on the climb to the summit. Lev was supposed to go along with it, escort Kurt and Paige up the trail, which has been a graveyard for many others, where the bodies will never be found.

Get Kurt and Paige on the slope, silhouetted against the mountain where they’ll be perfect targets.

“Of course they will kill me too,” Lev says. “They just haven’t said as much.”

Kurt asks about the money.

“Dummy files,” Lev answers. “When he opens them, he’ll think they’re real at first. Actually, they will open up flak—thousands of false files that will crash the system. The money is safe.”

Living to access it is the issue.

“This isn’t all that different from what we planned,” Kurt says, “as a worst-case scenario. Drag them into territory where they can’t stay with us.”

“I told you,” Lev says, “these men fought in Chechnya.”

“And?”

“Do you know what Chechnya is?”

“The Caucasus,” Paige answers. “Mountains.”

Paige would kick ass on Jeopardy.

She would kick some serious Trebek ass.

Yegor is former Spetsnaz, special forces, Lev says. The men coming with him were all trained at Hatsavita, the special forces mountain school, and fought in the Caucasus.

They’re mountain troops.

“These guys can stay with us,” Paige says.

“We’ll see,” says Kurt.

Confidence has never been Kurt’s problem.

(Its kissing cousin, arrogance, has.)

But he thinks that’s what being the best is about.

There are no degrees of best.

Either you are, or you aren’t.

Finding out in a life-or-death situation is about as extreme a test as it gets.

They finish packing their gear.

Lev leads.

He’s the best mountaineer of the three.

Paige in the middle.

Kurt behind.

The left-right of mountain trekking is different from the left-right of desert running. You can’t let your mind go somewhere else—you have to carefully watch where you put each foot.

They’re climbing up a glacier, and that glacier is rife with crevasses, deep cracks that are hard if not impossible to see at night, even under a full moon. Fall into a crevasse and you might never be seen again. Hope that the fall kills you because there is no way to get you out, and dying of cold, exposure, broken bones and smashed internal organs is a bad way to go out.

It’s beautiful out there, though.

Paige looks up at the summit, glowing silver now.

The Ice Throne of God.

What the locals call Chimborazo.

Paige wonders if she’ll meet God there.

And, if so, what She’ll say.

Another problem is altitude.

By the time they got to base camp, they were already at high altitude, anything above 11,500 feet. Now they’re at the level classified very high altitude, 11,500 to 18,000 feet.

A scientist, Paige knows the biochemistry.

In this range, arterial oxygen saturation drops below 90 percent and inspiratory oxygen pressure decreases. Which is a fancy way of saying that as you climb higher, the oxygen needed to sustain mental and physical alertness decreases. The problem is exacerbated by the rate of ascent and the amount of aforementioned physical activity you’re doing.

And they’re climbing fast and hard.

A race to the summit, because if they can get up and over before the Russians can catch up with them, they have a chance to survive.

But now they’re starting to suffer from hypoxemia—low blood oxygen—which increases the rate of breathing and makes you use your chest and stomach muscles to breathe at all.

In short, it wears you out.

You feel breathless.

Even superbly conditioned athletes feel the effects in this range. The only good news is that the Russians feel it too.

And now they’re pushing toward the 18,000-foot mark.

The so-called altitude barrier.

A.k.a. extreme altitude.

Humans just aren’t designed to live up here. There has never been permanent human dwelling above 19,000 feet.

For good reason.

Above the altitude barrier, bad things happen.

The hypoxemia gets worse, further dropping blood oxygen levels, which makes you start to hyperventilate. The hyperventilation leads to hypocapnia, reducing carbon dioxide in the blood, which constricts the blood vessels in the brain, which leads to two more bad things.

Alkalosis—that feeling of pins and needles in the extremities—i.e., those feet you need to keep you from falling off the slope or into crevasses. Then you get muscle cramps, not particularly helpful trying to climb up a mountain at speed.

But worse is cerebral edema.

It starts with a headache you can’t get rid of.

Your gait becomes unsteady—something you really don’t want on an already slippery slope.

Then you get a retinal hemorrhage.

Yeah, it’s what it sounds like—you start bleeding from the eyes.

That’s okay, though, because you won’t feel it for long. You gradually lose consciousness, then black out.

Then die.

This is why people do not live up here.

This is why people shouldn’t even go up here.

Most people, Paige considers, think climbing a mountain is a metaphor, a matter of willpower.

She knows that it’s a matter of biology.

Some people’s systems can handle it, to varying degrees.

Others’ can’t.

A biochemical crapshoot.

Speaking of shooting, she looks down and sees them coming.

Kurt sees them too.

Eight men, strung out in a line, weapons slung over shoulders, maybe 2,000 feet below.

And gaining.

Lev is basically trying to kill his stepfather.

Heart attack, hypoxemia, cerebral edema.

Pick your poison.

Welcome to the death zone.

With this in mind, Lev picks up the pace.

Paige is starting to feel what they softly call woozy.

Kurt, behind her, can see it in her footsteps.

Unsteady gait.

He reaches out and steadies her. Looks behind to see that the Russians have closed to 500 yards.

Bad time or good time—depending on what transpires—to reach El Corredor.

Lev picks it up to a jog, then a trot, then a run.

Paige keeps pace, but even with the crampons, her feet are slippery on the ice. She tells herself not to look at the 1,000-foot drops on either side, just focus on what’s ahead.

It’s just 90 feet across.

80, 70, 60.…

She slips at 30.

Kurt grabs her by the straps of her pack.

And pulls.

Tottering on the edge, muscles straining, he fights for strength and balance.

Bends his legs and thrusts up.

They sway for a second together.

Either they both make it or they both don’t.

Could go either way.

Then she finds her feet, plants, they make it across El Corredor.

Not everyone does.

Third Russian in line, his feet go out from under him.

It would be a comic pratfall if he didn’t grab the guy in front of him and they both slide off the edge.

Screaming in the wind.

Two down, Lev thinks.

He leads them across a broad snowfield.

The snow in this field masks crevasses.

Lev jumps over them, points them out to Paige and Kurt.

The Russian in the lead misses the cue.

Plunges into one of them.

None of the others pause to see if they can help him.

Mission-driven, these boys.

They keep coming.

Three down, Lev thinks.

But they’re gaining.

He has to change it up.

Lev leads them off the trail.

The God of Sun meets the God of Ice as they head up the final 2,000 feet.

WTF, Kurt thinks as Lev deviates from the route.

Then he sees the ice wall ahead of them.

Already exhausted, it’s excruciating work. Dig in the toes of the crampons, reach up and swing the ax, hope to get it bitten in good and then pull up. If the ax doesn’t have a true grip, you’re going to slide down or, worse, fall off backward.

They climb.

One hundred feet.

Two hundred.

Dig in, hold with one ax, swing with the other, pull up. Dig in, hold with one ax, swing with the other, pull up.

Kurt’s arms burn, his lungs burn, leg muscles cramp, head throbs. He’s not the scientist that Paige is, but he knows that it’s alkalosis setting in. Feels the pins and needles in his feet.

Dizziness.

What’s next?

The manuals talk about malaise setting in.

Malaise.

From the French “bad ease.”

Fuck the French.

No time for bad ease now, no time for ease of any kind, good or bad. Only time for effort. Good effort. Successful effort. Get up and over the ice wall.

Toward the summit.

Always the summit.

The top.

The extreme.

Kurt looks down.

The Russians are at 300 yards and closing.

Almost within firing range.

Even with the thin air and tortured breathing, these men are trained in biathlon. They’ll control their breath and get off accurate shots.

He reaches the top wall.

To see Paige’s butt disappear over it ahead of him.

Looks back.

The Russians are coming.

A rock wall is next.

Free-climbing.

Actually solo climbing.

Look, Ma, no ropes.

Paige follows Lev’s route.

Lev the solo climber, flash climber, speed climber, jazz climber. Heavy gloves off now, trade warmth for grip, but not a lot of time because you can’t trade grip for frostbite either.

Self-defeating behavior, that.

Hand grip, foothold. Hand grip, foothold.

First and last rule of solo climbing—three points of contact on the rock. A hand and two feet, two hands and a foot, doesn’t matter. Plant three and then move one. Find a ledge and grab it with a hand. Stabilize. Find a crack and stick your foot in it. Then reach out with a hand, find the next ledge.

Five hundred feet of rock wall and she knows it’s Lev’s desperate attempt to shake the pursuit. Few mountain climbers are solo climbers. Few want to go up a rock face with no ropes, belays, pitons, nothing but balance, skill, confidence, faith and hope.

Come on up if you have it in you.

If not, good-bye.

Lev gets lucky and Paige sees it.

A long, narrow vertical crack.

Lev wedges (good word in solo climbing, wedge is) a foot in and crabs up sideways, presses his spine against one side of the crack, one foot wedged against the other, goes up like an elevator on a construction site and she follows.

Kurt below her, struggling, his bulk a disadvantage now but his strength a compensation. Strong arms, strong hands that have gripped her so many times now grip cold unforgiving rock. He makes it into the wedge and now they’re stacked there.

Paige risks a look down.

The Russians are at the base, unloading ropes.

The leader sets out.

He’ll hammer in the pitons, set the ropes, create the belays.

They’re coming.

She looks back up.

Lev has come to the top of the vertical crack to a problem.

An overhanging ledge.

This is the trouble with jazz climbing.

It calls for improvisation.

This is Coltrane.

This is Bird, Dizzy and Prez.

No easy riff this ledge.

Sticks out a good 10 feet and the trouble is

You can’t reach it and keep three points of contact with the rock.

Or two.

Or even one.

You have to push off with your feet.

Backward.

Jump.

Reach forward.

And grab.

Not ideal.

They’ve reached that point where they can’t go up, they can’t go down, and they can’t stay where they are.

Yegor sees it.

And laughs.

Even though it costs him most of the breath he has left.

Truth is, he’s past exhaustion. Truth is, he shouldn’t have come. Larger truth is, he couldn’t help himself.

Ego.

And the inability to delegate.

And the suspicion that his trusted men might cut some sort of side deal with his devious stepson.

So Yegor has willingly walked into the death zone.

Climbed (to be fair, with some assistance) up an ice wall and now has the satisfaction of seeing Lev and his little friends trapped 500 feet up a rock face with nowhere to go.

Then—

Lev flies.

No other word for it, sorry.

He pushes off from the rock, slanting backward, gets air, reaches out and grabs the rock shelf with the fingertips of his left hand.

Paige watches him dangle.

For a second.

Then,

Slowly,

Slowly,

Pull himself up.

He disappears for a second and the next thing she sees is his hand reaching down and she hears the very frightening words:

“I’ll catch you!”

Yeah.

This ain’t one of those corporate retreat bullshit trust exercises where you fall backward into a reluctant colleague’s arms.

This is 500 feet in the air.

Frigid air.

And if he doesn’t catch you, you don’t take an embarrassing flop to the ground, you fall to your death.

No re-dos.

On the other hand (so to speak),

What else are you going to do?

Live in a crack the rest of your short life?

Freeze to death there?

Wait for people to come shoot you?

The menu is not an attractive one, so Paige launches.

Springs.

Reaches up where

Lev’s hand grabs her and—

He used to annoy the shit out of her, sitting in bars all the time squeezing a hard rubber ball, but now she thanks God for all those aggravating hours as his hand grips hers like the cliché vise and he lifts her onto the shelf.

From where she shouts down to Kurt.

“We’ll catch you!”

Yegor can’t believe what he just saw.

Thinks it’s maybe a hypoxemic hallucination.

But he just saw three people fly.

He yells to his men, with no notable originality, “Get them!”

Exhausted, they lie on the shelf and peek over.

Don’t want to believe what they’re seeing.

The five remaining Russians moving up the rock face like a machine. A beautifully coordinated climbing team, efficiently setting belays and moving up, rotating the lead climber.

It’s almost admirable.

Yegor, played out, is at the end of the rope, as it were. The others set and then haul him up.

“We’ll catch a breath and go,” Kurt croaks.

A long spine leads the final 1,000 feet to the summit. It’s futile, but there’s nothing else to do. The Russians will make the rock face and chase them to the top.

Where it’s endgame.

They’ve trudged 100 yards when Kurt feels that something is wrong behind him. Well, a lot is wrong behind him, but specifically, he sees Lev, rifle unslung, heading back toward the rock face.

Kurt hollers, “No!”

It echoes.

Yegor turns and waves.

A good-bye.

Then carries on.

“We can’t let him,” Paige whispers.

It’s as much breath as she has for speech.

“We can’t stop him either,” Kurt says.

He turns her around and they start for the top.

Lev means lion in Russian.

It fits.

Heart of a lion.

He makes it back just as his co-countrymen get to the shelf, elegantly solving the problem with a series of pitons and belays that force them to edge backward along the bottom surface of the shelf.

Problem is, he can’t get a shot.

Tries, but there’s no angle.

The men are under the shelf or pressed too tight against the rock. And now they’re efficiently hauling Yegor up.

Lev sees his chance.

He steps to the edge of the shelf.

And dives.

Like you’d swan dive into the water.

Off a cliff in Acapulco.

And he aims for the section of rope holding his unbeloved stepfather.

Years of wingsuiting have prepared Lev for this. He dives now like a hawk on its prey.

From 100 feet the impact is horrific.

Bones shatter,

Blood bursts into the sky,

But Lev grabs the rope above Yegor and

Holds on and twists,

Spins,

Fouling himself and Yegor in the line.

Lev wraps one forearm around Yegor’s neck and with the other hand grabs the knife at his belt.

Does what the Russians above know they have to do anyway.

Lev smiles at Yegor, reaches up,

And cuts the line.

There are a lot of forces you can buy off with multibillions.

But

Gravity ain’t one of them.

Yegor falls like anyone else, which surprises him.

As for Lev,

He’s not happy to die.

But if he has to,

He’d die on a mountain,

Taking an evil with him.

There is no such thing as a clean death,

But some are cleaner than others.

To die in a world of white is about all you can ask for, after all.

In a cold, clean world of white

Kurt and Paige stagger up the mountain because this is all they know to do.

His eyes bleed, his chest heaves.

It has all caught up with them now.

The efforts, the exertio


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