“I don’t understand what you’re asking. You can’t mean….”
“I think I’ve been perfectly clear and that you understand my request.”
Lene Norris’ plan was outrageous, but her attitude—imperious as a queen with a touch of impatient anger—left Rita feeling like a guilty third grader in the principal’s office.
“You want me to…”
“To let him die on the climb. Yes. That is exactly what I’m asking, and I’ll pay handsomely to make it happen. I’ve spent 40 years with him, 40 years! I’d like to be widowed before I’m too old to have any fun.”
Rita looked across the desk at the well-groomed, 60-somehting-year-old, matron. Mrs. Norris looked like any one of Rita’s mother’s friends. But unlike the elegant businesswomen and executive wives in Rita’s mother’s circle, this woman was casually proposing murder. She had just asked Rita to assassinate Mr. Norris. Well, not really. She asked that Rita neglect him long enough to insure that he’d die on the mountain.
A death on Mt. Killy was not good for business, but R & H Adventures (owned and operated by Rita Anemone and her best friend Henry Sobry) was tanking. Rita thought about the looming due dates on the outstanding business loans and the red ink on the spreadsheets. She pondered Mrs. Norris’ proposition. It was crazy. It was a violation of everything she believed in, but so was closing R & H. She’d spent the last six months looking for a way to save the company and here it was.
Giving up her dream of bringing a steady stream of clients up Mt. Kilimanjaro also meant going back to Hodgson Enterprises, her family’s business, with her tail between her legs. Her awful brother, Tracy, and his more awful wife, Carolyne, would be her bosses. It was a fate akin to a slow death. She’d shrivel up into a ball of despair before dying.
“I’m not asking you to kill him—just to let him die. And don’t worry about him not deserving it.” Mrs. Norris continued to rant as Rita ran the business numbers in her head. “He deserves it ten fold, a hundred fold. That cheating bastard has kept a mistress for five years. Can you imagine that? When he just played around with his assistants…. Well I could live with that. But a mistress with an apartment, a mistress living in the Olav Building, yes the one with that new five-star restaurant on the ground floor. That’s no doubt where he met her. Loves his food! It’ll kill him one day—food that is—I just want to hasten the inevitable. I bet she cooks for him….
“Well, never mind. You don’t need to know everything about her. What you do need to know is that my husband is P.J. Norris—Pendelton Joris Norris. Yes that’s his ridiculous name. P.J. has always wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s on the top—the very top—of his ‘bucket list.’ Just the idea of a bucket list is absurd, but…” Mrs. Norris rambled. “If he dies now, if he dies before it’s pubic knowledge…”
“Public knowledge?” Rita woke from her daydream.
“The woman, the mistress has a daughter. I don’t want my son to find out. He’s a softhearted young man. He may feel, well, feel compassion for the little girl and want her to get her due…. That woman’s child will not benefit from my husband’s death. Not if we take care of him now, before he gets a chance to change his will in secret. It’s all so sordid. I’m thinking about my son, I want to protect his interests.
“So this is how it will go down. I will give him the Mt. Kilimanjaro experience as his anniversary present at the party my son is throwing for us next week. Your job is to make sure he doesn’t come home.”
“I’m…. not a…”
“No, you are not a murderer. You just have to fail to save him. I’ll do the rest. Or he will do it entirely on his own. Climbing a mountain at 65 is a crazy idea to begin with. He’s healthy, well sort of healthy, as healthy as a golfer who uses a cart and downs two double single malts after an afternoon on the course.
“You really don’t need to know anything else except that there will be an electronic deposit in your account tomorrow. It’s the down payment and, I believe it is the exact figure for your deluxe package. In addition you will have this!”
Mrs. Norris pushed a fat envelop of cash across the desk.
“It’s twice the deluxe package in fifties and hundreds. This is the advance on your bonus for this, shall we say, special service? A second payment—also equal to twice the deluxe package—will be handed to you upon completion of the task. Understood?”
Rita nodded. She didn’t know what she was doing. She could call the police and report solicitation for a murder or take the money and run? Would the police believe her? And, more to the point, was this murder for hire or something less nefarious? Rita concluded that Mrs. Norris’ plan hovered in the gray area between murder and bad judgment. Henry didn’t even have to know. She could simply say that she’d ‘found’ some extra cash by switching things around. Henry wasn’t good with money so he’d never know she was lying. They’d be current with the business loans and have enough to do some much-needed advertising. Maybe there was a way to spin a death on Killy that would not destroy the business?
“You will receive the second cash payment when you tearfully attend my husband’s funeral.” Mrs. Norris stood, sweeping out of the office and leaving a trail of Chanel No. 5 laced with angry sweat.
The electronic payment appeared in the account.
A week later, Henry and Rita held the orientation/pre-trip training session for the next group of climbers. They were the usual mix of personalities and problematic characters. Rita did her best to ignore P.J. Norris. He was a pleasant-faced, moderately overweight, sixty-five-year-old man, with the sun-aged skin of a golfer and the swagger of a C.E.O.
Henry took charge of the training presentation, explaining the subtle symptoms of oxygen deprivation: loss of balance, irritability, blue-ish tone to the skin, fluid accumulating on the brain, difficulties breathing and the many challenges of a climb.
“You have to pace yourself. Walk with your breath and not your legs.”
“What on earth?” P.J. exclaimed.
“It’s simple. Think of this way. Down here at a little above sea level, your lungs are accustomed to getting sufficient oxygen. You walk, run and bike until your legs are sore and then you slow down. You’re training your muscles and taking your lungs for granted. Up where there is less air pressure, your lungs need to work harder to get the oxygen you need to keep going. If you set your pace to your big, strong, muscular legs then your lungs struggle and you will experience some level of respiratory distress. Thousands of meters above sea level, on our trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro even a slow climb will have your heart beating like you are running a marathon.”
One of the men was incredulous when Henry recommended yoga—for its coordination of breathing and movement. The man, an accomplished businessman and avid runner, insisted that his existing training regimen was superior. Henry went back over the dangers of racing up a mountain.
“This is not a run in the park.”
“The young couple,” Henry sighed as they sat at their favorite bar after the orientation session. “She really doesn’t want to go and he’s making it a relationship test…”
While Henry rambled on about the clients most likely to cause dissension in the group, Rita thought about P.J. Norris. Could she let him die? And what would happen if she saved him? Would Lena Norris find a way to take the money back? She could not ask for a refund on payment for an illegal proposition. Rita found that thought to be comforting. She formulated a plan that would save P.J. and save R & H Adventures, too.
Success on a climb was all about judgment calls. After the huge and notorious disaster on Mt. Everest it was possible to look back at the chain of decisions that led to tragedy, but in the midst of a climb it was often difficult to see how the first mistake began the cascade of wrong turns that end in death.
Rita always erred on the side of safety, maintained a high ratio of guides to clients and did her best to keep that ratio high throughout the climbs. It meant dashing heartfelt dreams. As soon as there was a significant sign of oxygen deprivation Rita would send the climber down with a guide. R & H may not have been profitable, but it was known for its safety record. Last year, she put a splint on a broken tibia and helped carry the climber down the mountain in a hammock. That was the first and only time her mother, Claire Hodgson-Anemone, expressed pride in her only daughter. Rita knew she could not allow R & H to fail—too much was riding on it.
The fatal climb began on a cheerful note. The young couple announced their engagement; P.J. Norris and the runner bonded over their skepticism over yoga; and a pair of best friends shared that the climb had been their dream since they met as children. That night, gathered in the glow of a fire, the mood was relaxed. Henry noticed how Rita held back a bit more than usual.
“You all right?”
“Yes, just thinking.”
“It’s the money. This is the last climb?”
“No, no we’re going to be OK. I shuffled some funds around and the last registration pushed us into the black.”
“Yes, another bucket list-er?”
“Yes, and his wife gave him the climb for their anniversary.”
“Well, at least she didn’t come along. That’s the worst. I can’t stand the bickering… Speaking of bickering, our lovebirds seemed OK today, but I suspect a problem in the making.”
“Well, I bow to your superior intuition.”
Henry was almost psychic in his ability to identify emotional dramas in the making.
“I’d ever bet against you, Henry, never.” Rita added. She hoped he would not see the confusion and pain she felt. Henry could not know about Mrs. Norris’ plan. He had to remain innocent. She’d carry the guilt by herself.
The second day there were signs of trouble. P.J. Norris seemed a bit short-tempered. It could have been the natural consequence of feeling out-of-control—which is a terrible fate for a CEO—or it could have been an early sign of oxygen deprivation. Rita ran her internal checklist and felt safe in concluding that a little irritability was not a true symptom of distress. It could be a million other things. If he exhibited a loss of balance or confusion, then she’d be obligated to take control. She didn’t really want him to die on her watch.
Near the end of the day’s climb, Rita was bringing up the rear with, Lynn, the young woman. Rita encouraged her to take it slow and steady, coaxing her to breath in a controlled manner. They took a break.
“I feel like everything is being sucked out of me. My skin, my lips, I’m parched.”
“This is not a run in the park, Lynn. Put some more sunblock on your face and think about how wonderful it will be when we reach the next camp.”
Rita found her usual role as cheerleader comforting. Lynn kept her mind off P.J. Norris for a few minutes, but then the circular thoughts and uncomfortable questions returned. Did Mr. Norris look a bit blue? No, not really. Was his gait irregular? No, not more so than it had been at the start of the climb? Or was it? It was hard to say. And Rita’s usual confidence in her ability to observe her clients was undermined by her worry about what she would do if one particular climber began to suffer signs of distress. Had his wife slipped him some kind of slow acting drug? Did Mr. Norris fail to disclose a medical condition that would have precluded his participation? Her mind raced as she walked the slow pace at the rear of the group.
Early the next morning it happened.
Lynn twisted her ankle. Ollie, her fiancé suggested that she ‘tough it out’ and ‘walk it off’ but Henry intervened. He studied Lynn’s face and quickly concluded that the ankle was not the problem. Lynn did not want to be on the climb in the first place and the twisted ankle was a handy excuse to abandon the process. It was a graceful exit. Henry assigned one of the other guides to accompany Lynn down the mountain.
During the discussions and tearful farewells, Rita studied P.J. Norris’ face. His pallor was not quite right, but it wasn’t obviously blue and he seemed to shuffle a bit when he walked.
“You doing all right Mr. Norris?”
“Call me P.J. and yes. What a view! I can’t wait to make it to the top. That’s what I do, you see, I make it to the top. Always have and always will…. It sometimes takes a while, but I get there.” His tone was whimsical, almost as if he were telling himself a story.
“That’s a good attitude,” Rita replied. She waivered. Was he losing it or just becoming philosophical? A climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro was a philosophical, spiritual, existential and deeply emotional voyage for many climbers. Some were seeking a challenge while others were looking for something else—evidence of God, redemption, escape and P.J.’s meandering thoughts were likely the byproduct of some internal struggle.
“Do you think P.J. Norris should go down too?” Henry asked Rita, noting that she was intent on the man’s face.
“No, I don’t think so. Just a little philosophical musing, nothing that would indicate he’s in trouble.”
“Good.” Henry said. His trusted Rita’s ability to assess the situation.
This was especially important at the early stage in the climb because sending one guide down with the injured climber mean that the ratio of guides to clients was shifting for the rest of the trip. Sometimes Henry and Rita took the precaution of sending a weak, but uninjured, climber down when the first guide escorted an obviously distressed climber. This prevented problems later on when they might lose another guide for the second climber the following day.
It was best to keep the ratio of professionals to amateurs as steady as possible. Unlike many other for-profit climbing companies, R & H never promised or implied that they would take everyone to the top. It had cost them some clients, but it was a sensible measure meant to keep everyone safe.
Was her quick decision influenced by money? Rita wondered as they began to move up the trail again. A few hours later, P.J. Norris began to fall back in the group. Rita, again taking up the rear, kept a slow and steady pace by his side. Encouraging him to regulate his breathing.
“I need a rest.”
“I shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“Are you ill?”
“No, no I’m fine, but…. I’m a terrible man. My wife, my wife gave me this trip because I’d always talked about it, talked about making the climb…”
Was he rambling? Rita was not sure. He could have just been searching for the right words.
“Yes, she told me when she booked the trip.”
“But you see, I don’t deserve this. I’m a bad father and a worse husband. I’m a terrible man.”
“Breath slowly, Mr. Norris, slowly and steadily….” Confessions weren’t uncommon on climbs. Rita joked that she was a priest hearing about sinful pasts—adultery, embezzlement, sexual abuse, vandalism, fraud and more. She’d heard some shocking stories during climbs.
“While I’m here having the experience of a lifetime, my wife is…”
P.J. seemed determined to continue talking. Rita put her hand on his shoulder.
“Take it easy. Breathe.”
“You see right now. Right now back in Westchester. My wife is pulling out of the parking lot near her salon and a man in a black BMW is going to carjack her new Lexus and kill her in the process. I hired him to kill her so I can marry again and not give Lene anything. I’m a terrible…”
P.J. gasped for breath.
“Slow down, breathe. Don’t speak.”
P.J. collapsed. He was having a heart attack. Rita went on autopilot, administering first aide, she was still trying to resuscitate him when Henry showed up by her side.
“I came back down to find you. I’m so sorry.”
Henry gave her a big hug as she cried. Her tears stinging on her raw, dry skin. Lene and P.J. Norris were terrible people and they’d each arranged for the other to die in a horrible way—a gift of the Magi in reverse.