A Fatal Thaw

A Fatal Thaw coverAvailable as follows:

About the Dedication

for the Four Major Food Groups & Literary Society
you know who you are
and you know why

The Four Major Food Groups & Literary Society is my book club. We meet once a month and have dinner and talk about a book, the idea being that if we hate the book we can still eat. As far as the food is concerned, there is only one inflexible, unbreakable, graven-in-stone rule: The dessert must be chocolate. Just ask Sharyn.

Something they didn’t know until the book came out: All the massacre victims in the first chapter are named for the FMFG&LS.


Just another day at Bernie’s Roadhouse…

The door burst open and what seemed like a mob of people flooded in, which after a few noisy, confused moments settled into half a dozen men and two women, dressed in down jumpsuits and parkas and bunny boots, bulky garments which made them look bear-sized. Their faces were red with sunburn, none of them looked as if they’d had a bath in memory of man and as they came closer Kate’s nose told her they smelled the same way. Climbers. You could always tell, if not by the smell, then by the expression of exhausted exaltation on their faces.

This shouting, laughing, odoriferous human wave surged across the floor and broke against the bar. “You Bernie?” the tallest, burliest, and smelliest man demanded.

“So they tell me,” Bernie drawled.

The stranger drew himself up to his full height. “I’m Doug, and I just climbed Angqaq Peak.” A cheer rose up. “We all did,” he said, looking around at his companions.

“You make the summit?”

“Damn straight we made the summit!” Doug whooped, and for a minute the rafters rung with the deep-throated yells of the climbers in full voice. When the noise died down Doug turned back to Bernie. “George Perry told us that before we’re confirmed as bonafide Big Bumpers we had to stop in here and have a drink called a Middle Finger.”

“That’s right,” Bernie said, “you do.”

“Well?” Doug looked around him. “Eight Middle Fingers, straight up, barkeep.”

“And keep ’em coming!” one of the other climbers called, and his friends whooped and beat him on the back.

Bernie waited for the hubbub to die down before saying, “Take off your gloves.”


“Take off your gloves,” Bernie repeated calmly.

The climbers exchanged mystified glances but complied. Bare-handed, they began to be uneasily aware of the interest they were generating. The broad general grin that sprawled across the expectant face of everyone in the room added to their nervousness.

“All right,” Bernie said again. “One at a time, step up, hold up your hands and spread your fingers.” He reached beneath the bar and produced eight shot glasses. Turning, he took down a fifth of some clear liquor sitting in the absolute center of the middle shelf, with the rest of the bottles drawn respectfully off to the right and left, and set it down on the counter next to the shot glasses.

Doug looked at the bottle. “What the hell?” Beneath its sunburn his face lost color.

“Along about 1949,” Bernie said, his voice pitched to carry, “some surveyors made a trip up Angqaq to see what they could see. They didn’t have a clue about climbing a mountain like the Big Bump, they didn’t have much equipment or anything in the way of survival gear, and what happened was what you might expect: They got caught in a blizzard and two of them froze to death. The third survived in spite of a case of serious frostbite, which cost him three fingers off his left hand.” He paused and surveyed the sobering faces of the climbers. “Before I built the Roadhouse, a guy by the name of Sneaky Pete had a kind of trading post here, and the surveyor made it back this far and collapsed on his front doorstep. Pete took off the guy’s fingers, and he decided, as a lesson to future climbers, that he ought to commemorate the cost of this guy’s survival. He dropped the guy’s middle finger into a bottle of Everclear. From that day forward it has been required of every climber who successfully makes the summit of Big Bump, with all their fingers intact, to toss back a shot of Middle Finger and toast to the memory of those who don’t come back, or don’t come back whole.”

Doug’s face was a sight to behold, but he was game. He thrust out his jaw and held up his hands. “One,” Bernie said, pointing to Doug’s right pinkie finger, “two,” pointing to his right ring finger, “three,” pointing to his right middle finger, and so on. By Doug’s left thumb the entire bar was chanting along, “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten!”

There was an electric silence. Bernie uncapped the bottle in which the surveyor’s finger washed gently back and forth across the square bottom. Bernie had changed the mix to Jose Cuervo Gold and, after forty-plus years of pickling, the wrinkled skin of the surprisingly well preserved finger looked as if it had been seasoned with saffron. It still sported a fingernail, Kate noted, and, if she was not mistaken, what might have been a hangnail.

Bernie poured out a shot and waited. Doug gulped, took a deep breath, threw back his shoulders, no doubt gave a fleeting thought to the sterilizing effects of 80-proof alcohol, and in one quick movement raised the shot glass and tossed it off.

The bar thundered with cheers and applause. There was only a slight hesitation before the next climber stepped willingly if unenthusiastically forward, held up her hands and suffered the count, and choked a straight shot of Middle Finger down. Each of the climbers followed, and each performance was counted down by the bar in a body, witnessed with bated breath, and cheered with fervor.

The ceremony complete, people crowded forward to treat the newly-inducted Big Bumpers to the Middle Finger chaser of their choice, and the climbers began peeling off their down outer wear with a view to settling in for the afternoon and perhaps even the night.

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