By: Thomas Fitzgerald McCarthy
A heavy fog cloaked most of Verdando Mountain in the winter. From a distance, it was thick and glassy, and the few houses in the valley below looked like little more than particles of residue trapped in a sheet of pond ice. Xiu Ying Lee had visited his uncle’s property up here several times when he was a teenager, at a time before there was any significant Chinese presence outside of L.A. in California. Prejudice had driven him up into the mountains toward a life of solitude, fishing and hunting like any other Chinese frontiersman in the red earth of Dongchuan.
Verdando Mountain was one of those places in Northern California that the world had forgotten. The road snaked into the mountains like a garden hose that had been left in bent shape and cracked when the water froze. Broken down cars and fallen trees provided obstacles for drivers at every quarter mile. Luckily, Lee was on foot, carrying all of his worldly belongings in a backpack which did not include a tent. As night began to fall like a black hammer across the horizon, what little warmth remained began to evaporate, replaced by a thin frost.
Suicide was fresh on Lee’s mind as his fingers and toes numbed up. Fear of God was the only thing that kept him going. Everything else was gone. No family, no friends, no money, no home. The blinking lights of Commerce Bank Casino seemed to be on the other side of the galaxy. The life of a professional poker player, even at its height, was inherently a life of vaganrcy, traveling the tournament circuit from one city to another. That life had never been one worth living.
Dissipating fog revealed the edge of a cliff, blockaded by a storm of fallen branches. It didn’t look like it would be that difficult for him to climb through—
The fog continued to lift from the surrounding woods, revealing a cabin hidden in the nest of a wooded knoll. There were no lights. Both windows appeared to broken and the door was slightly ajar.
One more night. Tomorrow morning, if I don’t feel better.
Lee quickly made his way up the hill. The cabin was rather large, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a study, a basement and a living room. There was a damp bed, but Lee found some spare blankets in a basement closet and wrapped the bed over. He built a small fire in a fireplace using a half-filled can of cooking oil and some dry logs. Then he used a stapler and some dirt towels from the bathroom to bandage the broken windows and keep out the draft. After about an hour, a frail warmth settled over the house.
Warm clothing? Check. Secure shelter? Check. Time to look for food.
A life at the casinos had left him scouring for food like an actor going on supply runs in the Walking Dead. Using a lighter, he searched the darkness for something to quiet the ache in his pits. All of the cabinets and pantries were already empty. He’d eaten the last of his peanut butter crackers and was down to two bottles of gatorade.
In the basement, he scoured through two old filing cabinets full of tax returns attached to the name Ashley Gibson, a soiled crib that was rotten with old age, a bench press set with a few twenty pound weights and a shelf of cardboard boxes filled with broken fence posts and solar lawn gnomes. Nothing in the bathroom, living room or bedrooms. Finally, facing defeat, he retired to the study. There was a desk and an empty display case where a pair of hunting rifles had probably once been propped.
Examining the desk with his lighter, Lee rapped his knuckles rapped on the wood. There was a response of hollow knocking that didn’t seem right. A gentle curiosity crept into him. He pressed his palm flat on the wood, pushed and lifted. A small square wood panel slid away. A piece of paper fell to the floor. He reached down and clutched it, holding the lighter up close.
It was a list of handwritten names.
Lee stared stupidly at the list for a long time. There were no other explanatory notes. It was just a list of names. Written on a piece of ordinary paper. Hidden inside a secret panel in a desk. In an abandoned cabin. In the mountains.
Somehow, it seemed like so much more.
On the verge of suicide, with no food in his belly, lying on the cold floorboards, clutching a lighter with numb fingers, the nothingness of the list was paramount.
The list was nothing.
Still, he stared at it long into the night, until the pain in his stomach was gone and the air seemed still around him.
The list was everything.
There was a public library with free WiFi in the small town of Sodoma. A young girl behind the librarian’s counter flitted her eyes over Lee’s shaggy form and then glanced away as he climbed the steps to the empty second level. He hadn’t showered in eight days, so he had a twenty-foot rule with strangers—stay at least that far back so they’re not certain that he was a drifter.
Using an online directory, Lee discovered that there were three people who lived on the mountain with matching names, and four more in the general area code. These were not uncommon names, especially Martinez and Washington, so he would forgo picking one and move on to the mystery.
Systematically, he scanned through the microfiche and online archives for all notable crime stories in Sodoma from the past forty years. On a notepad, he wrote down summaries of the most suspect cases:
February 2, 1983 — Wiccan leader poisoned by ex-husband during religious ceremony. Others suspected, but not charged. Clint Ewel sentenced to life in prison, commits suicide a week after sentencing. Case closed.
August 15, 1986 — Nine-year-old boy kidnapped and released two weeks later in the woods. Victim suffered head trauma. No recollection of event. No ransom note or signs of sexual abuse. Cold case.
October 18, 1991 — Hit and run on Nash Road. Victim paralyzed below the waist. Vehicle description — blue Suburban, custom fireballs painted alongside, a minimum of five occupants, possibly as many as eight. Case remains open.
August 29, 1992 — Wildfire on Verdando Mountain destroys two square miles. Police and fire rescue teams discover two dozen illegal marijuana greenhouses during fire control effort. Owners skip bail and flee to Costa Rica. Property seized by the state and resold. Arson suspected. No suspects charged. Case closed.
March 26, 2002 — Tractor trailer driven off Weymouth Road into secluded field. Vehicle abandoned. State police recover plastic tarps, bubble wrap and empty crates stuffed with hay. Parent company reports unauthorized use of vehicle. No manifest. Driver’s body discovered by hikers two years later. Cause of death: unknown, possible exposure. Cold case.
June 6, 2018 — Body discovered by Egg Creek. Face and hands mauled. Fingerprint, dental identification not possible. No ID. No missing persons reported in area. Case remains open.
Intriguing, but nothing out of the ordinary, he was forced to admit. Disturbing things happened everywhere. Especially in the shadows of the mountain. People went missing. Vehicle went missing. Poison flourished. The names of uncanny gods were recited in hushed prayers.
He looked over the list of unsolved cases and mysterious happenings. In his mind, he pictured them. The conspiracy. The secretive circle. With his eyes already closed, he blinked. They were standing around a meth lab, the burned ruins of their drug rivals, an armory of automatic weapons, a blindfolded child, the statue of some long-dead pagan god.
Pick one. Put them on a hand.
He remembered the tournament at Excalibur twenty years earlier. At the final table, he’d called down the chip leader on the flop and turn, and then hesitated on the river, as the other man announced an unusually large bet, nearly twice the size of the pot. After some deliberation, another player finally called the clock on him. Panicking, his fractured mind finally chose a hand for his opponent and called.
It had been a bluff. Lee won that tournament. Seventy-five thousand dollar prize. His greatest triumphant.
Thinking back over his broken career, he suddenly recalled his own style of bluff. It didn’t work very often, which is why he favored straightforward play. Lee would watch player’s body language, hand movements and facial ticks when they checked their hole cards. When he decided a player was on a marginal hand and raising just to protect against a larger initial bet, he would call them to the flop and then bluff them on all three streets if he had to, to try to get them off it.
He called it a suicide bluff, because once he pulled the trigger on the flop, there was no going back. He would commit himself to the river and fire all three bullets.
Last night he’d been contemplating the act. Now, he found that he still didn’t quite have anything worth sticking around for.
So he might as well try it one last time.
Paul Smoltz lived nearest Sodoma. That was good. He might hesitate firing a shotgun so close to town.
Despite being half-buried in the face of the mountain and cloaked by redwoods, the man’s home was actually quite elegant, not unlike a Faberge tick. It was a three-story masterpiece of maple wood the color of pipe smoke, punctuated by two parallel rows of bird’s nest windows. A long stone wall composed of polished black basalt enveloped his property, interrupted by only the driveway, at the lefthand corner of the property. Sodium vapor lamps stood like silent guards on either side of the cobblestone driveway. Grapes and tomato pants hung from a pair of iron garden trellis in the front yard. A stone patio protected by slanted roofing provided sanctuary for visitors on the characteristically rainy mountain. From the breast of a dark brown oak door, a cast iron condor stared out menacingly at Lee as he approached.
Despite the tangible aura of doom, it was exactly what he’d hoped for—like waking up to a raise from the biggest stack at the table while he was holding a powerful starting hand.
Steeling himself, Lee clutched the aluminum ring that the condor held in its beak and knocked three times on the door, doing his best not to look disheveled or possessing any human emotion.
After a half minute, he heard footsteps somewhere on the ground floor.
“Hello, you’re a long ways up here, stranger. What can I do for you?”
Lee’s stare was cold steel. “I know.”
Smoltz blinked uncomprehendingly. “Excuse me?”
“I know,” Lee repeated, nodding his head, as if repeating a bit of bad news to allow the other person to digest it.
The mountain man’s feigned flabbergast was betrayed by a momentary hesitation. “I’m sorry?”
Slower this time. “I know.”
The other man regarded him suspiciously, and then the thin veneers of emotion melted through to a parallel disposition of hard metal. “Listen, I’ve got zero tolerance for mind fucks at 6,000 altitude, so explain why you’re here or I’ll—”
“I know.” Hard. Accusatory. A wife holding a second cell phone. A convenience store owner holding a security tape. A teacher holding a graded test, unblemished by red ink.
Smoltz scanned him from stem to stern, paying close attention to the state of his sneakers, holes in his jeans and unwashed, year old stains on his shirt. “You don’t know much about anything, I’d wager.”
Tilting his head slightly, “I know enough.”
“You don’t know shit.” Instantaneous response.
Smoltz’s expression contorted slightly, as if suffocating a laugh. His eyes were full of mockery.
It was none of those cases, you schmuck. You guessed wrong.
Todd didn’t care. He waited deliberately for him to move to close the door. It was all in the shoulder.
Edinburgh began to deflate, as if disappointed in some way. “You’re not even worth calling the cops on.”
The door began to close.
Edinburgh paused as the apparent familiarity of the name hooked him. Todd didn’t measure any alarm, though. They might have lived on the same mountain. He waited for Edinburgh’s lip to quiver.
“Sarah Bedford. Nick Martinez. Dominic Washington. Billy Hutner. Ashley Hamlin. KB.”
Hutner’s name was the hardest to pronounce with any certainty, because he was nervous that the author might have misspelled ‘Hunter’, which was a much more common surname. He initialed the last one, because he’d known three different people in his life who went by the nickname KB. It sounded good. Playful and yet hearty. Like your best friend’s big brother. That was the most dangerous part of the game, but potentially the most rewarding. Trying to put on a veneer of familiarity.
“Names,” Smoltz said. “Those are just names.”
“They all have one thing in common.”
Smoltz lifted the door wide again and stared him down. “Alright. What do you know?”
“Are you sure you want me to repeat that out loud?”
Smoltz’s cheeks and eyes sank into a pensive stare, like the retreating tide revealing deep trenches in the sand. Suddenly, the middle-aged man seemed in his late sixties.
“You wearing a wire?”
Lee didn’t know whether it was Smoltz who said it or him. Smoltz stared at him for a long time. Behind the sunken skin and hard jaw, Lee saw new thoughts beginning to formulate as Smoltz’s thinking changed.
“What do you want?”
“What can we both live with?”
Smoltz stared at him for a few seconds, as if trying to measure the meaning of his words. He glanced past Lee and scanned the road. After leveling his eyes at the Chinese-American one more time, he let go of the door and retreated into his house.
Lee remained standing in the open doorway, the mountain cold nipping at the back of his neck and calves. For a few moments, he heard nothing. Somewhere in an adjacent room, there was a loud metallic spinning sound, like a giant bicycle lock, followed by several loud beeps. A soft clapping sound. A safe had just been opened.
But was he retrieving golden treasures or a revolver?
Lee stood there stupidly in the doorway, waiting in anxious terror. It seemed stupid, after all. If what this man had done was bad enough to warrant paying a blackmail, then it was likely murder.
So why not just murder the blackmailer?
Lee’s mind raced for a daydream to fight off the terror, but instead found itself replaying a dramatic scene from the film Reindeer Games where Ben Affleck directs his criminal companions to a promised POW-WOW safe at gunpoint, only for them to find the bloodied casino owner swing a Uzi into their faces and start shooting.
Smoltz was suddenly standing in the doorway, stone-faced and holding something. Lee didn’t break eye contact. If he was going to die, he was going to die looking his killer in the eye, holding his bluff to the very last breath.
Smoltz thrust a large brown paper bag toward him. It swelled at the bottom, like a fat diaper.
Lee blinked. Commerce. Three months ago. Top two pair headed toward the river. The other man had Ace-Five on a board of Ace, Queen, Four, Three.
“One time,” the other man moaned in the dealer’s direction.
There were six empty coronas on the floor beside his chair and a castle of chips in front of him. The dealer spiked a deuce on the river and the man completed a straight for Lee’s last five-hundred earthly dollars.
Smoltz’s voice snapped Lee back to reality.
“One time,” he repeated. “I don’t want to ever see you again. You don’t come back up here. I don’t care if the next Great Depression hits. If you do, I’ll be holding something else when I answer this door.”
Lee clutched the brown paper bag, felt the weight, but didn’t pull. Smoltz’s grip was still tight.
“One time,” he repeated with a solid nod.
Smoltz’s grip relaxed. He took the bag from Smoltz’s hand and turned to leave, half-expecting a gunshot to the back.
Nothing came. He walked unhurriedly down the driveway, feeling the gentle unevenness of the cobblestone beneath his worn shoes. It was like walking on gold bricks.
At the edge of the driveway, Lee paused and lifted the bag with one hand, testing its weight. Heavy. The weight felt good.
Nash Road curved upward into the mountains in a winding arc. They were only halfway up the mountain. Sarah Bedford’s ranch was a few miles up the road. Kyle Butcher’s home was nestled on the far side of the mountain.
He looked down the road. Darkness was beginning to swamp the valley. Two miles away, the town’s lights were pricking out of the darkness.
They looked frail. Like stars that had died millions of years ago and were still inadvertently sending their light to Earth. No more than empty promises.
The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
As Lee stood there, a question began to plague him. Not the secret. But the game.
He glanced up the road. There were eight more names left on the list.
Cash out? Or keep playing?