I turned back to confront the polished stairs leading up into the townhouse. I took out my cell phone. The top autodial button was programmed for 911. I didn't press the button though. Instead, I kept it in my hand as I cautiously went up the stairs. Confronting me at the top of the stairway was a larger-than-life, beautifully framed print of a color photograph of Francesca. It dominated the entry. It was clearly Griff's work, and he had done her justice. It showed her hanging from a wall of sapphire ice, supported by two ice axes and the crampons attached to her boots. Her hair had been shorter in that picture, and the hood of her parka had fallen back a little to show a spiky halo around her determined face. The sun that illuminated the blue ice reflected in her blue eyes. She looked great. It was easy to see why Griff had fallen for her. She looked like a snow goddess—the petite version.
At the top of the stairs I saw a series of huge prints of Griff's pictures hanging along the back wall. Every one showed Francesca in climbing gear. From the massive peaks in the background, I guessed that these were taken during the early days of their relationship in Nepal.
The condo had high ceilings and hardwood floors. The cathedral effect was heightened by the sparse furniture, which gave the place a cavernous empty quality. The place seemed deserted except for the persistent buzz of a fly. The main room was blocked from view as you rounded the top of the stairs by a glass cabinet that must have been seven feet tall, filled with sports trophies and climbing memorabilia.
I went around the trophy display, and tripped over a black leather case that had been unceremoniously dropped at the edge. I went down sprawling on the hardwood floor, cursing myself for awkwardness. I lay for a second, assessing any damage, cringing in expectation of laughter and expecting to look up and see the petite and athletic Francesca sneering at my huge awkward self, complaining that I had scuffed the waxed floor.
Instead, cautiously getting to my feet, I saw a long oak table with a new canvas tarp half pulled off it, and what appeared to be a dummy, submerged in a welter of climber's gear—harnesses and rope, caribiners, crampons, pitons. I had never climbed a day in my life but I'd watched enough people pack and unpack their gear to easily commit it to memory. I didn't see any ice axes, although I saw the harness with the holster from which most climbers hung a couple of axes with their claw-like heads for climbing ice, the way Francesca had in that huge photo.
I went a little closer, puzzled. Mountaineers are usually very particular about their gear. After all, their lives depend on it. Someone had scattered Francesca's stacks of pitons like matchsticks. Her ropes were tangled into a spider's nest, hanging half off the table.
This was a cruel joke surely. I went a little closer, my steps echoing on the hardwood. The tarp had been partially pulled off the gleaming oak table. The climbing gear made a disorderly still life.
My stomach lurched when I realized that the totally still figure at the center of the disorder was no dummy. Francesca Etheridge, a rope around her neck, her red face distorted, lay among her gear, one of her ice axes planted in the soft base of her throat. The bloodied rips and tears in her thermal undershirt showed where she had been hacked before dying. She was clearly lifeless. The blood long clotted. Twisted where she had fallen like a broken doll, her arms were trapped by the ropes and frozen at an awkward angle, not by cold but by death.