It was the first really warm day in May. One, which brought with it the promise of the season to come, even if there was still snow glittering atop the Death’s Head, Hell’s Watchtower, and down along the north faces of the surrounding mountains of Gaia’s Backbone. As far as anyone was concerned, it was the first day of High Country spring, and that was cause enough to celebrate.
Sydney moved to Marrakech toward the end of February, when the air was at its coldest and the snow at its most frequent. She would go to her job over in Petra and get her groceries in Leeds, but, otherwise, kept herself holed up inside her new home above Ira Milligan’s café. The climate of Colorado’s High Country was a little bit of a shock after living in New Mexico her entire life.
It was Desdemona who convinced her to move up. They had been friends since college, and Dessy was the only one who was privy to all of what was happening down there the last five years. She convinced Sydney it was best not only to leave Prague, but New Mexico altogether. Dessy was always going on about how Colorado was a pretty neat place, especially the small High Country town called Marrakech.
Because it was the night of first warm day in May, Dessy all but dragged Sydney out to Magpie Jack’s for a few drinks and an attempt to get her past the depression of having to leave New Mexico and the self-imposed cabin fever she’d been in since the end February. For a Thursday, the place was packed and the atmosphere was festive. Dessy explained the weekends were more for tourists anyway. The weekdays were when the locals had their fun. Sydney accepted this new paradigm with a smile that only widened when she heard one of her favorite Devil Makes Three songs playing from the speakers.
But I don't come 'round here
to meet nice people anyway.
And what the hell am I doing
drunk in the middle of the day?
And I can feel the departure
of all of my hard-earned pay,
But with the shades drawn
everything just drifts away…
As they sat down with their drinks, Sydney overheard one of the old-timers telling the story of someone named Lazarus Lankin, a name she’d heard once or twice since moving to Colorado. In her estimation, apparently, this man was somewhere between a rockstar and a mythological figure around the entirety of Levant County. When she would hear his name mentioned, she would shake her head and chuckle, thinking how one of the locals were talking about their own Paul Bunion.
The particular tale that was being told involved a nineteen year old Lankin disappearing into the Backcountry around Gaia’s Backbone for three weeks. Outside of a sister in Leeds, he had no family to speak of, but someone got concerned and convinced mountain rescue to go looking for him. Somewhere around the Death’s Head, William Connelly, the head of the county’s rescue, fell, breaking his leg along the scree. He was still tumbling toward the edge when someone grabbed him. Connelly looked up to see it was Lazarus Lankin.
“And you know what Lankin said?” The old-timer queried his audience. “He says; ’I was going to be home tomorrow. Did my sister ask about me?’”
“It was after that, nobody ever worried about Lankin again. I even told him I wanted him on my rescue teams,” Connelly, who was standing by the bar added. Laughs resounded throughout Magpie Jack’s.
“Jesus Christ,” Sydney muttered with a slight smile. “Who is this guy?”
She was starting to look out the window, sipping her beer, when she heard another commotion erupt from the bar. The old-timers were whooping and hollering as though a game-winning point had been scored during a very important game. She looked up to see a man with chin-length rust colored dreadlocks grabbing a glass of red wine.
“Natty Dreadlocks,” Sydney mused loud enough for Dessy to hear. Pointing, she said; “There is bravest and most secure man here; drinking wine in a mountain bar.”
“Sydney, my dear,” Dessy began with tone suspended between admiration and arousal. “That is Lazarus Lankin.”
Perhaps the shock was obvious, because she could hear her friend giggling at her reaction. There was something to Lankin, this much was true, but he certainly didn’t come across like a rockstar or Paul Bunion. His angular features gave him an almost otherworldly appearance. He seemed to view the gathered parties at the bar with a sort of feline detachment, only responding when it seemed to suit him.
“The man behind the myth,” Sydney said, trying to regain her composure. “Not too bad, and I generally don’t find dreadlocks attractive on someone with his skin tone.”
“You and every other girl in Levant County’s found him a looker,” Dessy said. “I’d wager even Ira Milligan’s had a crush on him at one point.” She noticed how Sydney was looking at her. “Hey, Marty and I haven’t always been married.” She paused again to take a deep, almost excited, breath. “Those eyes…”
Sydney felt those gray orbs burning into her before she glanced over to notice that Lankin was looking right at their table. He excused himself to the bar with a quick smile and the slight raising of his wine glass. His movements were fluid and sure. Predatory, in their purpose. He closed the distance between the bar and the table effortlessly. Sydney found herself thinking of Himalayan documentary she watched once featuring snow leopards as he approached.
“Desdemona,” Lankin began as he came to the table, reaching out an arm to scoop her up in a hug. “It’s been a bit. How’ve you been?”
“Since right before it really started snowing, Lazarus,” she said as she reciprocated his hug and stole a lingering kiss along his darkly bronze-colored cheek. “I’m happy to see you.”
“Better watch it, Marty might get jealous,” he quipped. “The fact he’s not here to accompany a lovely young lady such as you is nothing short of a shock.”
“Poker game with Orin down in Leeds,” Dessy replied. “Enough of an excuse for a girls’ night out with an old college pal.”
“Whose name is…?” Lankin’s gaze focused upon Sydney. She wasn’t sure if she should feel flattered, Dessy’s level of excitement, or fear at the intense curiosity directed at her.
“Sydney,” she said, gingerly extending her hand. “Sydney Pollock.”
“Nice to meet you, Sydney, Sydney Pollack,” Lankin’s grip was firm, but strangely friendly.
“Oh, it’s just Sydney,” she giggled without even thinking about it. The heat in her cheeks told her she was blushing.
“That’s a very exotic name, Just Sydney,” Lankin teased as he slowly released his grip on her hand. “Where are you from?”
“Sydney,” she insisted, catching herself giggling again. “I just moved here from New Mexico. A place called Prague. Doubt you ever heard of it”
“I’ve been there,” Lankin said with a sort of off-handed civility. “A lovely place. Great canyoneering.” His gaze became suddenly even more intense and predatory as he cocked his head to the side inquisitively. “What is it you’re running and hiding from?”
She felt herself go cold. In the stories she’d heard, Lankin possessed a certain knack for figuring things out. Secrets were supposedly impossible to keep from him. Some locals guessed it was because his sister was apparently psychic, though Lankin would dismiss such things as mere luck.
“I needed a change,” Sydney said defensively. A lie neither she, Dessy, or her inquisitor believed.
“The way you’ve holed yourself up in one of Ira’s apartments all winter would speak to the contrary,” Lankin said as if he was discussing the weather. “But hopefully the coming of warmer weather will draw you out.”
“And what about you…?” Sydney began.
“My name is Lazarus Lankin,” he replied, almost unconcerned. “But I’m sure Desdemona already mentioned that. You can call me either Lazarus or Lankin. I don’t really care.”
“Well, what about you, Mister Lankin?” Sydney started again in a formal tone. “What do you do?”
“Many things,” he said, his eyes locking with hers’. “Amongst them is giving straight answers to direct questions.”
“Hey, hey, hey!” Dessy broke in. “As much fun as this is to watch and all, do you two want to go shoot some pool? There’s a table open, and, Lazarus, Sydney here could give you a run for your money.”
“How could I possibly turn down an invitation like that, Desdemona?” He inquired rhetorically before returning his inquisitive gaze to Sydney. “And yourself, Just Sydney?”
“I’d love to,” any defensiveness she’d felt previously melted into anticipation. If nothing else, she wanted to get to know this man behind so many stories.
“Well, I require more wine,” Lankin said, finishing his glass. “I’ll get your next rounds as well, unless Grizz decides to.” He started to walk away, pausing only briefly to look over his shoulder at Sydney. “Rack them up, Just Sydney.”
She watched him walk back to the bar, purposeful and predatory in his movements. Her face was flush and she found herself trembling slightly, although it had nothing to do with fear, either old or new. A hand on her wrist, Dessy’s, got her to jump unintentionally. There was a look on her friend’s face she recognized from back in college; one of playful knowing.
“You’re doomed,” she giggled, like a very young girl privy to a very big secret.