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The Stranger MAG
As the frigid wind cascaded across my face in rhythmic fashion, I could not help but chide myself for leaving my hat behind in Ridgeport. The sudden snowstorms of Mount Omeko are as near to commonplace knowledge as the fact that seat belts save lives, and they are just as disregarded. Being a particular detractor of those who neglect to use the simple safety device, I felt considerably chagrined at my failure to foresee the potential problems with not expending the minuscule amount of time and energy it would have required to take the hat. It was very little consolation that no one was presently aware of my mental lapse; I’ve been in the trade long enough to realize that seemingly insignificant errors often lead to dire consequences.
My trade. It would not be difficult to explain in blunt terms, but I dislike the connotation that they often carry. Thus, suffice it to say that I am a nomad, a wanderer; I am a man who travels in the search of compensation and then departs upon finding it.
I momentarily ceased my trudging through the dense stacks of snow when I spotted the light ahead. Temporary bewilderment soon faded into comprehension as my mind came into focus. The incessant snowfall had hindered my sense of distance, and I apparently had made more progress than I previously realized. I often underestimated my considerable hiking ability.
The light signified the location of the ski lodge, which was my preliminary destination. Though I am a wanderer, there are certain places in which I take refuge, and I return to those places often in time of need. The ski lodge was such a place.
I checked my beige bag and, finding it secure, resumed fighting through the storm. I soon arrived at the large oaken door which was the lodge’s point of entrance. After several knocks, and a few brief words with Winters, the caretaker, I was soon within the pleasantly warm confines. The interior appearance was just as it had always been: a mess hall lined with several rows of tables was in my immediate line of vision, as was an extremely large and comforting fireplace. Less obvious were the several smaller rooms, which contained emergency supplies, stored food, and several bunks for any unexpected visitors. As familiar as the appearance of the lodge was, however, I was rather surprised to find it quite occupied; besides Winters and myself, three other men were present.
“Somehow I knew’d you’d show up,” Winters remarked lightly. “I even have a reception party ready for you.” His comments were greeted by nervous smiles from the three other visitors. Not surprisingly, none of them knew who I was, and had not expected any additional company.
“Aw, c’mon,” Winters continued, raising his voice a bit. “How about a nice welcome for my friend, Drake Porter! Drake, these fellows were planning to do some skiing in the blizzard – a bunch of daredevils – but then the weather got too bad even for them. Anyway, I said I’d put ’em up. What are you doing back around here? Still working for those Hiking Patrols?”
“ No,” I answered immediately. “No, I was just in town for a visit. I was heading off toward Fiereston when the storm hit.”
“Well, no matter. Always willing to help,” Winters replied. His statement was in fact quite true. The caretaker of the ski lodge never hesitated to give assistance to those who came his way, as I often did. We had grown rather well acquainted from my many visits, but Winters’s use of the word “friend” may have been stretching it.
I hobbled over to one of the tables and tossed my beige bag upon it. As I took a seat, each of the men from the skiing group introduced themselves.
“Glint Williams,” stated the first man sternly. He was a heavy-set fellow, but his strength was apparent. I waited for some elaboration concerning his identity but none was forthcoming.
“Harvey Jacobs,” the second man told me, with a friendly nod. “I’m a banker from down in Ridgeport and the biggest Brooklyn Dodgers fan west of the Mississippi. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I smiled kindly in response and glanced expectantly at the third visitor.
“Narb Siluk,” he mumbled softly after a moment. “I work for the Mount Omeko Ski Patrol, and know every trail on the mountain.” His introduction gave me the impression of a tape recorder. I suspected that he used it whenever he met someone with whom he was not familiar.
Just when it seemed as if the three men had accepted the odd fact that they now had company, something very unexpected occurred: there was another knock at the door.
The man who stumbled through the door was unfamiliar to all of us. He wore an old grey coat, which, in spite of its battered look, appeared quite warm. His head was covered with a woolen hat, and he carried with him a large hiking backpack.
The stranger situated himself at a table, and after a moment, he glanced around slowly at the eyes observing him so intently.
“Hello,” the stranger stated calmly. Thank you for providing me with some shelter.”
“No problem,” Winters acknowledged. He had a seemingly endless supply of goodwill.
“My name is Jake Follata,” the stranger continued, apparently feeling he was obliged to an explanation. “I was tracking a criminal from Ridgeport.”
At this remark, my ears perked up. “Criminal?” I inquired. “I just came from Ridgeport several hours ago, and there didn’t seem to be any trouble there.”
“That’s odd,” the stranger commented with a frown. “I suppose you must have left before the incident. The town bank was robbed by an armed male.”
“My God!” remarked Harvey Jacobs. “Was anyone harmed? How much did he steal?” He asked in response to the stranger’s inquiring gaze. “I work at the Ridgeport bank. I have for the past eleven years. This is my first day off, and …” he shook his head in amazement and disgust.
“Well,” the stranger responded, “no one was injured in any way. The teller on duty was intelligent enough to comply with the robber’s demands. Unfortunately, those demands included taking every bit of cash the teller had available.”
“And he got away?” Jacobs asked angrily.
The stranger nodded, “He just walked right out of town with the money – all twenty thousand, nine hundred, and thirty-eight dollars.”
“Now, how exactly do you know all this?” asked Jacobs. “I know every resident of Ridgeport, and you sure aren’t one of them.”
At this remark, the stranger seemed to falter slightly. “Well, you see, I’ve been tracking a particular criminal for the past two months since he robbed a bank in Galtersville. I have reason to suspect that this man has been involved in a series of murders and robberies, and that the incident in Ridgeport was just the latest.”
“Why are you tracking him, anyway?” I asked.
“I’m a United States Marshal,” the man replied swiftly. “I’m sorry that I have no identification to show you, but I left it in Ridgeport in my hurry to leave. I’ve been chasing this man so long that when I heard about the robbery in Ridgeport, I stopped by at the bank and then immediately set out to chase him. I had no idea that I was so close on his tail.”
The stranger’s intriguing narration had even aroused the interest of the quiet Glint Williams. “What happened next?”
“Well, I set off along what seemed to be the most ideal escape route. It was called Rileston Trail, I believe. Anyway, I soon came across a trail of footprints in the snow. I began following them, and was still doing so when the blizzard hit. At that point, I just stumbled along until I found this lodge.”
“Hold on,” I demanded. “Are you saying that you followed the tracks to this lodge? That would mean that this criminal of yours is here.”
“Actually,” the stranger explained – rather awkwardly, I thought – “after the blizzard hit, I lost his tracks in the snow. I just continued on with the intent of finding shelter, when I stumbled across more tracks. In the hope that they belonged to the robber, I followed those. They led me straight here.”
“You must have come across my tracks,” I explained. “I arrived shortly before you.”
At this point, Narb Siluk glanced up. “Are you trying to say that you’d traveled all the way from Ridgeport to this lodge by way of Rileston Trail in just a few short hours? That’s a tough hike.”
“I’m a fast hiker,” the stranger explained, a nervous edge creeping into his voice. “I have no reason to lie to you. All that I want is some temporary shelter until the storm dies down, and then I will set out again in search of the criminal.”
Nobody seemed to believe fully the stranger’s story – it seemed to have more holes than a sieve. It was not, however, as if we had a choice as to whether or not he could stay. That was strictly the decision of Winters, and the caretaker did not seem to mind having the suspicious “Mr. Follata” among us.
And so the day carried on, and the ferocious blizzard showed no signs of relenting. The time passed with nervous discussions of topics ranging from the possible Yankees/Dodgers World Series rematch to the recent civil rights developments. All the while, we silently grew more suspicious of the mysterious stranger and the contents of his hiking backpack.
As dusk began to fall, Glint Williams decided to call it a day. Siluk and Jacobs followed soon afterwards, and eventually even the stranger gave up his incessant hope that the blizzard would die down. Shortly before I turned in, I pulled Winters aside, out of hearing range from the bedrooms.
“I don’t trust this Follata fellow,” I told him. “His story doesn’t fit, and he seems fairly paranoid. I bet that he’s an escaped convict, or something of the sort.”
“He certainly is an odd character,” Winters agreed, “but no stranger than me or you. Besides, he doesn’t seem to pose much of a threat.”
“What if he is an escaped convict?” I pressed. “He might decide that he doesn’t want any witnesses around to report the fact that he stayed here.”
Winters eyed me curiously. “You’re getting a little paranoid, Drake, but if it makes you feel better, you can sleep in the supply room. That way, before Mr. Follata can sneak into your room and strangle you, he’d have to pass by my room. I’m a light sleeper, so I can come heroically to your rescue.” He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “Get some sleep, Drake. It’s just been a long day.”
I was not fully satisfied with Winters’s response, but it would have been pointless to continue arguing, so I did as he requested. As I lay asleep in the supply room, however, my mind could not cease pondering the contents of the stranger’s backpack. Finally, after what seemed like hours of sleepless wondering, I could take it no longer. Being as silent as possible, I slowly crept out of the small room. Making my way to the stranger’s sleeping quarters in the darkness of night, I recalled Winters’s comments and was especially cautious as I passed his room. After what seemed an eternity, I arrived at my destination.
The stranger had been rather careless, leaving the door unclosed. I slowly pushed it open far enough to squeeze through, flinching at the crrrreeeeaaaak the old, rusty hinges made. Once inside, I quickly located the backpack.
Trying vainly to ignore the absurdity of my actions, I examined the backpack. I carefully unzipped the compartment on the left. I reached my hand inside, and pulled out … a comb and a toothbrush. After checking to ensure that the stranger was still asleep, I opened the large central compartment. After pushing aside several articles of clothing, I spotted an item that caused my heart to skip a beat. Fully equipped with a silencer lay a sleek black pistol. Caught up in excitement, I picked up the weapon. By the time my eye caught sight of the movement above me, it was too late to react.
The stranger was leaning out of his bunk with a hand around my throat and the other grasping my wrist. Eventually, my grip on the pistol gave way and the stranger snatched the gun. Seconds later, I was against the wall, staring down the barrel of the pistol.
I braced for the shot which was sure to follow, but it did not come. Instead, the stranger’s attention was drawn away as Winters burst into the room with a shotgun in his hands. With surprise now on my side, I brought my knee up into my assailant’s stomach and grasped hold of his pistol. As Winters looked on, the stranger and I struggled for control of the weapon, until it suddenly and unexpectedly discharged and “Mr. Follata” fell backward onto the ground, his eyes wide and empty.
“I’ll be damned,” Winters muttered quietly. “What are you doing in here anyway, Drake?”
“I … I was checking his bag,” I sputtered, out of breath. “And I found the gun. How did you know to come?”
“I told you,” Winters replied evenly. “I’m a very light sleeper.”
Several hours later, the storm died down, and the three skiers left the lodge. None of them ever knew of the night’s events. Each simply assumed that the stranger had decided to sleep longer than they.
Winters then prepared to travel down to Ridgeport to contact the police department. He left me to await his return with the authorities, at which point the entire mess could be straightened out.
Being a wanderer, however, I chose to continue on my ceaseless journey. As I got ready to leave, a curious thought struck me. I went back into the room in which the stranger lay dead and walked over again to his backpack. This time I opened the small compartment on the right side of it, and sure enough, the hat I had left in Ridgeport lay inside.
I slipped it over my head and left the ski lodge. After several miles of traveling, I became rather hot and removed the hat. I paused along the trail for a moment to open my beige bag and place it inside – directly beside the twenty thousand, nine
hundred, and thirty-eight dollars in cash.