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The Ascent: A Novel of Survival (Thriller Suspense)

Ronald Malfi


  Part 1

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Part 2

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Part 3

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Part 4

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19


  For my parents and grandparents,

  who taught me to never stop climbing.

  Published 2010 by Medallion Press, Inc.


  is a registered trademark of Medallion Press, Inc.

  If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment from this “stripped book.”

  Copyright © 2010 by Ronald Malfi

  Cover design by James Tampa

  Edited by Lorie Popp

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

  Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Typeset in Adobe Garamond Pro

  Printed in the United

  States of America Title font set in Cacavia01

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Malfi, Ronald Damien.

  The ascent : a novel of survival / Ronald Malfi.

  p. cm.

  ISBN-13: 978-1-60542-067-7 (alk. paper)

  ISBN-10: 1-60542-067-0 (alk. paper)

  1. Self-actualization (Psychology)–Fiction. 2. Mountaineering–Fiction. 3. Psychological fiction. I. Title.

  PS3613.A4355A93 2010



  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  First Edition


  Having never attempted to climb a mountain, I must confess to a certain degree of ignorance—both in the act of climbing as well as the undertaking of writing a novel centered on such a subject.

  The following books helped me in the writing of this novel: No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts; Jon Krakauer’s breathtaking Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster; Chris Bonington’s Everest by Sir Chris Bonington as well as Bonington and Charles Clarke’s Everest: The Unclimbed Ridge; Everest: Alone at the Summit by Stephen Venables; Ian Baker’s astounding The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet’s Lost Paradise; and a countless selection of Let’s Go travel guides.

  Thanks also to Helen A Rosburg and the folks at Medallion Press, particularly Lorie Popp for her priceless editorial assistance, and Kerry Estevez, who has guided me like a Sherpa through this publishing terrain.



  Chapter 1



  it nonetheless: the Italian countryside, cool in the stirrings of an early summer that promises not to be too overbearing. Clouds sit motionless in the bluest of skies like great seagoing vessels. I imagine the lush, sloping hills spilling into the scenic valley, the grass aquamarine and populated by a dazzling array of thimble-shaped purple and yellow flowers. There is a rutted dirt road, just wide enough for a single vehicle, which winds around the hillside like a satin ribbon.

  The vehicle appears first as a glinting beacon over the farthest hill. The stillness of the afternoon vibrates with the grinding of gears and the rumbling of tires. I imagine the vehicle to be an old motorcar, something from the 1920s, with a convertible top stripped away, rubber matte running boards, headlamps like snare drums.

  David is behind the wheel. I dress him in ridiculous driving goggles, racing gloves, a worn bomber jacket. The only thing missing is a silk scarf flapping behind him in the wind.

  Hannah is in the passenger seat. She laughs, and I can see the glitter of her teeth, the faint parenthetical lines at either side of her mouth. Her hair is short, curling just at her jaw, and appears the

  color of new copper in midday.

  When the car strikes something in the road—an errant tree limb or a large stone—David jerks the wheel, and Hannah’s laughter dies. I watch the motorcar swerve off the narrow, gouged road and rumble over a grassy knoll. The vehicle crests an embankment, and in that moment, it seems plausible that it will come to rest at the zenith of the embankment, seesawing precipitously on its undercarriage but secure.

  Instead, it clears the embankment and barrels right over to the other side where it teeters motionlessly in the air for what seems like both a millisecond and a millennium at the same time. The motorcar tips forward and plummets to the mountainous terrain below, then erupts at the bottom in a dazzling belch of fire.

  This image runs through my mind over and over as I lay dying.



  My eyes fluttered open, yet I could not see. Pure darkness surrounded me. My hand splashed through the freezing water until it fell on the cylindrical shell of the flashlight. I cracked it against my palm a few times until the light winked on. The beam illuminated a wall of limestone a mere two feet from my face. I was in a cavern chamber of sorts, sprawled out in several inches of water. Eleven hundred feet below the surface of the earth, I was overcome by disorientation.

  I tried to sit up, but a searing pain shot through my left leg and blossomed like an explosion in my stomach. I turned the light toward one of the cavern walls and closed my eyes until my respiration was once again under control.

  The foolishness in coming out here alone was suddenly all too apparent. It went against the tenants of the trade. Always go exploring with a partner; always tell people where you’re planning to go so they know when to expect your return. Stupidly, I’d done neither.

  “Fuck,” I uttered, my voice echoing all around me.

  I reached down and felt the cut in my left leg, the jagged serration of my shinbone projecting through the tissue and the fabric of my pants. I refused to shine the light on my wound, refused to look at it. My ignorance kept me anchored to sanity.

  I directed the beam along the walls of the cave. The light reflected and refracted off the frozen javelins of ice. At one point, the beam fragmented into a rainbow prism, and I tried to hold it there, unmoving, while I caught my breath.

  It was cold, but I was sweating through my anorak. I adjusted the couplings—metal hooks digging into my waist—and wiped my brow with one shaky hand. I glanced up. The ceiling of the cave pressed close to my face. I could see the calcium deposits, the shimmering constellations of mica embedded in the rock. I found the narrow hole, too—the hole I’d carelessly fallen through just moments ago—and that was when my flashlight died on me again.

  Absolute darkness.

  “Come on, you son of a bitch …”

  I slapped the flashlight a few times, but it wouldn’t come on. Seconds passed, but it felt like hours. The pain in my leg seemed to i
ntensify in the darkness, its throb in synchronization with the pulsing, vinegar threads of burst blood vessels behind my eyelids. I was beginning to breathe my own spent breath; it was coming back at me like reverberations off the cave walls. How much air was down here, anyway? How much time before I bled out?

  After a time, I realized I could make out the paleness of my hands in the darkness, which meant the darkness was not absolute after all. Squinting, I discovered the suggestion of light issuing from a coin-sized opening somewhere far above my head. I did not know if this was actual daylight or just its reflection off a frozen, glossy spire. It was like trying to weed out reality in a hall of mirrors.

  The flashlight came to life in my hands, startling me. I aimed thebeam into the hole where the light dulled to a milky nothingness. The fall could have been twenty or thirty feet, but I couldn’t tell for sure. The flashlight’s beam fell upon vague indentations in the walls, which might serve as handholds, but the passageway itself looked dubiously narrow. How in the hell had I managed to fall down such a tight shaft?

  You came down that way, I told myself. You can climb back up.

  Taking a deep breath, I attempted to stand on my one good leg. My thighs, which had been soaking in the stagnant, icy water, were practically numb. The shaft was narrow enough to lean against and keep pressure off my wounded leg, although the mere act of readjusting its position sent fireworks up my spine. I gritted my teeth so hard I nearly ground them to powder. Still, I raised myself on one leg, easing my head and shoulders into the hole in the cave ceiling. I heard the fabric of my anorak ripping and the metal hooks on my belt scraping against the stone. Each exhalation brought my breath back in my face. The opening was snug enough to disallow my arms to pass through; panic shook me as, for one terrifying second, I felt stuck.

  Then somehow I managed to free myself and push through. Halfway up, the flexing of my muscles caused the space to tighten around me, and I froze with one hand pinned against my chest. The hand holding the flashlight was still below, too bulky to work its way through the narrow mouth of the hole, so my vision was dependent upon the minimal amount of light issuing from somewhere far above me.

  My injured leg refused to straighten out. It would be impossible to climb the shaft without straightening the leg. Trying not to think about it, I attempted to slide my hand back down, but it wouldn’t budge. I was stuck.

  Jesus …

  I started thinking about my SUV, and that was always a bad sign. My metallic green Jeep Cherokee was parked maybe thirty yards from the main road, visible only to those who might actively been searching for it. Not that anyone would be searching for it. I’dheard enough stories from spelunkers to know that when you started wondering if your car was visible from the highway, you were already in too deep. You’d bought the farm, as the saying went.

  But I was panicking. I wasn’t thinking.

  Five years old, I thought. Swimming lessons. Dad kept telling you to put your head underwater, put your head underwater, put your head underwater. Deep breath and put your head—

  “Underwater,” I whispered. I said it not to hear the word but to release the last bit of air in my lungs, narrowing my chest in the process.

  The rock loosened around me, and I was again able to move my hand. I thrust it upward and slapped a numb palm against the wall of the shaft, groping for one of those handholds I’d spotted. My fingers slipped into a groove and gripped it. Something caught in my throat. I thought of skeletons blanketed in cobwebs. I was able to rise on the tips of my toes and snake my other hand through the maw, spilling white light from the flashlight straight up through the narrow tunnel. Everything smelled of sulfur.

  It’s not sulfur. It’s chlorine, I kept hearing in my head. This is no different than swimming. You’re swimming. This is swimming in a pool; can’t you tell?

  I could tell. I could tell, all right.

  The flashlight fell from my hand. I heard it clatter against the rocks as it dropped, pulling the light with it. It struck the water with a hollow, plastic sound. An instant later, I was awash in blackness again.

  This is swimming. This is swimming—

  I realized I hadn’t taken a breath in quite a while. I took one now, my lungs aching and my chest expanding, pressing hard against the stone all around me. The constriction was too great. I couldn’t catch a full breath.

  It was the fear of dying alone in the dark that set my body in motion. I proceeded to scale the wall, my fingers seeking out niches in the wall to hold on to, the muscles in my arms and shoulders straining as I hoisted myself off the ground without the assistance of my legs. The tunnel was too narrow to bring a knee up; my legs hung uselesslybelow. My broken left leg felt as if it were rigged with coat hangers and packed with broken glass.

  I gripped a ledge above and felt space open up behind my shoulders. The tunnel was widening. This is swimming. This is swimming. I managed to raise myself up farther—

  My hands slipped, and I anticipated the fall before it actually happened. But when I crashed to the bottom, the pain in my injured leg was potent enough to send my mind whirling …

  I stood at the end of a long pier watching a Ferris wheel pull slow rotations in the oncoming dusk. Something tickled my throat, and I coughed into my hands. People shouted from the boardwalk, and when I looked in their direction, I was shocked to see many of them pointing at me. I cupped my hands to my mouth and coughed into them again. This time, however, I coughed up the head of a daffodil, glistening with spittle in my palm, and I stared at it with wonder—

  And then I’m there once again, standing off in the distance, admiring the green, sloping lawns of the Italian countryside. As soon as I realize where I am, I see the motorcar speeding around a curve in the road. I wave my arms as it approaches, pleading for the driver to slow down.

  I stood in a room of darkness as a figure approached. How I was able to discern the figure’s shape I did not know, but as it drew nearer, I sensed a radiance from it, and there was an anticipation in my chest.

  Then my eyes opened to the blackness of the real world.

  Here, I thought. I’m going to die down here.

  The pain had ushered me into blessed unconsciousness. Upon awaking, I felt the numbness of my left leg—the frightening absence of it—but it was no longer that drilling, incomprehensible pain.

  I was on the ground, icy water all around me. I knew I was awake and lucid, but I refused to move. The flashlight was dead, probably destroyed when I’d landed on it, and I didn’t care. This was it. I was watching the motorcar launch over the hillside, and I no longer thought about broken legs or my Jeep Cherokee.

  There was someone else here with me.

  The feeling was unmistakable. When I was a child, my mother used to gather me in her lap and rake her long fingernails down my bare back. She would carve designs, designs I was required to guess—a turtle, a lion, a skyscraper. Seconds before her fingernails ever grazed my flesh, I could sense their approach, could feel them coming like a twinge in my spine, a tickle in my tailbone. This feeling was like that: a sense of impending certainty of the presence of another.

  “I’m dying,” I said. Although I could not be certain if I spoke these words aloud or not …

  —You’re not, Hannah said.

  I felt my heart leap in my chest. I wished for light by which to see her, but there was no light here. This was a tomb below the surface of the earth.

  —Get up, she said.

  “I can’t,” I managed, certain this time of the words forming in my throat and hearing the way they croaked forth and came back to me. “Can’t … move …”

  —You can’t die down here, she said.

  There were other words, too—words that made no verbal sense, no vocal sense—but they were dedicated to forcing me up from the frigid water.

  I didn’t see the hand come out of the blackness above; instead I felt it. Again, it was similar to my mother’s fingernails on my back, causing goose bumps and sending shivers
down my spine. I knew the hand wasn’t actually there—that I was feeling it only in my mind—but the sense of it was enough to cause in me a surge of power, of strength, of celebration.

  My arms were over my head this time, a smarter approach. My fingers fumbled and grasped a set of niches in the wall. Using my renewed strength, I hauled myself off the stone ground and out of the freezing pool of water in which I’d been sitting. This movement caused fresh agony to bullet up through my left leg. I could feel it everywherethroughout my body, igniting every single nerve ending and causing my teeth to gnash. Still, I continued to raise myself into the hole above my head, using only my arms and my one good leg.

  The narrowness of the hole permitted my elbows to bend to a maximum of perhaps thirty degrees, merely bowing out and not truly bending at all. There was nothing more I could do about this; the walls of the channel pressed hard against the points of my elbows, and I was once again breathing in the heavy dust.

  It took all my strength and concentration to release my grip on one of the handholds I’d secured and to swing momentarily like the pendulum of a clock. My free hand shot straight up, providing more room in the tunnel in its wake.

  Then I was able to bend my other elbow just a bit more, drawing my face closer to where one hand still gripped the handhold. I could feel the tendons in my body, as tense as violin strings, quaking in unison. Yet I was able to raise my free hand higher into the darkness above. It slapped against the stone far above my head with numb satisfaction. The fingers immediately slipped into another groove.