It was a quiet night at Magpie Jack’s. The type that would warrant an early close were it not for the scattered silent patrons about the bar. A lone television set showed some scarcely watched program. Someone had put on a few classic rock songs on the jukebox, but no one was really paying attention. The bartender was playing solitaire while Grizz read the paper.
A few stools over was Trace, a young man who had a cousin that lived over in Petra. He would come up to go hiking along Gaia’s Backbone, stopping in at Magpie Jack’s for a beer and the occasional snippet of gossip. In the few years since he moved to Colorado from upstate New York, he’d been able to get a few hiking tips and stories out of the locals of Levant County by virtue of his family ties. If Grzz was in when he came by for a beer, he’d remark that foreigner was in his bar again. Trace never took it as an insult, though sometimes he wondered if he should.
He sipped his beer silently, trying to decide how he was going to he was going to ask the question he had on his mind. Sometimes, people would roll their eyes at him. He figured it was because they were mountain locals and he was this guy who moved from New York to take a job in Denver and came up on the weekends. Sometimes, he wondered if the locals around the county just humored him, as though it didn’t matter that he had a cousin in Petra, he was still an outsider.
“Been sitting there all quiet for a bit,” Grizz said, not even looking up from his paper. “But I can feel your eyes on me.”
“Sorry,” Trace said, taking a swig of beer. “Wanted to ask you something.”
“Up along Gaia’s Backbone, looks to be south and west of Hell’s Watchtower, I swear there’s this other peak, but I never get a good look at it,” Trace said. “It’s either always hazy or there’s clouds around it. Am I seeing things?”
“No,” Grizz replied curtly.
“So there is a peak there!” Trace felt himself getting excited. “Does it have a name?”
“That sounds ominous,” Trace said with a bit of a forced laugh.
“’Cause it is,” Grizz snorted.
“Any trails?” Trace asked. “Is it really technical?”
“Got a death wish?” Grizz shot back.
That made Trace swallow a hard lump in his throat. Grizz was a gruff character to begin with, but this was different. There was almost hostility in his voice. Something about that mountain seemed anger him.
“How do you mean?” Trace started. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Don’t matter,” Grizz replied. “You got it in your head to check it out.” He then shot Trace a look out of the corner of his eye. “Not a lot of people go up there, and even less come back. Some people say it’s cursed.”
“Thirty years back, one of my sons climbed up there to commit suicide,” Grizz said softly, “It wasn’t until another rescue, a few years ago, that they even found his bones. Almost everyone around here has known someone who has either disappeared or outright died up there.”
“I’m sorry,” Trace wanted to reach out, but the look in Grizz’s eye told him he’d lose a hand doing it.
“You didn’t know.”
“So, I guess you’re the wrong person to ask about it,” Trace mused.
“You guessed right,” Grizz said, his gaze slowly shifting down the bar.
At the end was a man Trace would tell his Denver friends was the wine guy, because he always drank red wine. Although he’d never been formerly introduced, Trace knew the wine guy was someone a lot of people respected. Even as their eyes met, he could feel a strange, feline gaze boring into him. The wine guy’s finger was lazily circling the top of his glass. Without a word, he started over, his gray eyes fixed and intent, his movements, cat-like. Trace extended his hand.
“Trace McAlester,” he began. “Can I get you another glass of wine…?”
“Lazarus Lankin,” his grip was firm. He finished his wine in a single gulp. “If you are so inclined, I’d love another glass.”
“On me, Lazarus,” Grizz put in, which illicited an off-handed smile.
“I’m the one who found his son’s remains,” Lankin said casually. “Thus, he’ll sometimes get me a free glass as a sort of recompense.”
“Oh my god!” Trace exclaimed. “So you know about Phantom Peak then?”
“Intimately,” Lankin said, taking his fresh glass of wine.
“What’s it like? What’s up top?” Trace couldn’t help himself; he was excited and intrigued. His curiosity was getting the better of him. This did not go unnoticed.
“You’d rather not,” Lankin said as he took a long sip of wine. “Phantom Peak is the kind of place your nightmares are scared to go. Trust me.”