Read an Excerpt
The day, Sunday, June 30, was warm and torpid. On New Hampshire 16, the serpentine roadway from Portsmouth almost to the Canadian border, light traffic wound lazily through waves of heated air. Far to the west, a border of heavy, violet storm clouds rimmed the horizon.
The drive north, especially on afternoons like this, was one Zack Iverson had loved for as long as he could remember. He had made the trip perhaps a hundred times, but each pass through the pastureland to the south, the villages and rolling hills, and finally, the White Mountains themselves, brought new visions, new feelings.
His van, a battered orange VW camper, was packed solid with boxes, clothes, and odd pieces of furniture. Perched on the passenger seat, Cheapdog rested his muzzle on the windowsill, savoring the infrequent opportunity to view the world with his hair blown back from in front of his eyes.
Zack reached across as he drove and scratched the animal behind one ear. With Connie gone from his life, and most of his furniture sold, Cheapdog was a rock—an island in a sea of change and uncertainty.
Change and uncertainty. Zack smiled tensely. For so many years, June the thirtieth and July the first had been synonymous with those words. Summer jobs in high school; four separate years in college, and four more in medical school; internship; eight years of surgical, then neurosurgical, residency—so many changes, so many significant June-the-thirtieths. Now, this day would be the last in that string—a clear slash between the first and second halves of his life.
Next year, the date would, in all likelihood, slip past as just another day.
Highway 16 narrowed and began its rollercoaster passage into the mountains. Zack glanced at his watch. Two-thirty. Frank and the Judge were at their club, probably on the fourth or fifth hole by now. Dinner wasn’t until six. There was no need to hurry. He pulled off into a rest area.
Cheapdog, sensing that this was to be a stop of substance, shifted anxiously in his seat.
“That’s right, mop-face,” Zack said. “You get to escape for a while. But first…”
He took a frayed paperback from between the seats and propped it up on the dash. Instantly, the dog’s squirming stopped. His head tilted.
“You appreciate, I can see, the price that must be paid for the freedom you are about to enjoy. Yes, dogs and girls, it’s time for”—he took the silver dollar from his shirt pocket and read from the page—“a classic palm and transfer, Italian style.”
“The book, Rufo’s Magic with Coins, was a 1950s reprint Zack had stumbled upon in a Cambridge secondhand bookstore.
Amaze your friends…Amuse your family…Impress members of the opposite sex…Sharpen your manual dexterity.
The four claims, embossed in faded gold leaf on the cover, each held a certain allure for him. But it was the last one of the group that clinched the sale.
“Don’t you see?” he had tried to explain to a neurosurgical colleague, as he was fumbling through the exercises in Chapter One. “We’re only in the O.R.—what?—a few hours a day at best. We need something like this to keep our hands agile between cases—to sharpen our manual dexterity. The way things are, we’re like athletes who never practice between games, right?”
Unfortunately, although the principle behind that thought was noble enough, the implementation had given rise to a most disconcerting problem. For while Zack’s hands were quite remarkable in the operating “room, even for a neurosurgeon, he had as yet been unable to master even the most elementary of Rufo’s tricks, and had been reduced to practicing before mirrors, animals, and those children who were unaware of his vocation.
“Okay, dog,” he said, “get ready. I’m going to omit the patter that goes with this one because I can see you eyeing those birches out there. Now, I place the coin here…and snap my wrist like this, and…and voila! the coin it is gone….Thank you, thank you. Now, I simply pass my other hand over like this, and…”
The silver dollar slipped from his palm, bounced off the emergency-brake lever, and clattered beneath the seat.
The dog’s head tilted to the other side.
“Shit,” Zack muttered. “It was the sun. The sun got in my hands. Well, sorry, dog, but one trick’s all you get.”
He retrieved the coin and then reached across and opened the passenger door.
“Cheapdog bounded out of the camper, and in less than a minute had relieved himself on half a dozen trees, shambled down a steep, grassy slope, and belly flopped into the middle of a mountain stream.
Zack followed at a distance. He was a tall man with fine green eyes and rugged looks that Connie had once described as “pretty damn handsome…in a thuggy sort of way.”
He wandered along the edge of the slope, working the stiffness of the drive from his bad knee and watching as Cheapdog made a kamikaze lunge at a blue jay and missed.
Do you know, boy? he wondered. Do you know that the rehearsal’s over? That we’re not going back to the city again?
He squinted up at the mountains. The Rockies, the Tetons, the Smokies, the Sierras, the northern Appalachians—an avid rock climber since his teens, he had climbed at one time or another in all of them. There was something special, though, something intimate and personal that he felt in the White Mountains and nowhere else; they seemed to be giving him a message—that the world, his life, were right where they should be.
The demands of surgical training had exacted a toll on every aspect of his existence. But of all those compromises and sacrifices, the unavoidable cutback in his climbing was the one he had accepted the most reluctantly. Now, at almost thirty-six, he was anxious to make up for lost time.
Thin Air…Turnabout and Fair Play…The Widow-Maker…Carson’s Cliff…Each climb would be like rediscovering a long-lost friend.
Zack closed his eyes and breathed in the mountain air. For months he had wrestled with the choice of a career in academic medicine or one in private, small-town practice. Of all the decisions he had ever made—choosing a college, medical school, a specialty, a training program—this was the one that had proved the most trying.
And even after he had made it—after he had weighed all the pros and cons, gotten Connie’s agreement, and opted to return to Sterling—his tenuous decision was challenged. The ink was barely dry on his contract with Ultramed Hospitals Corporation when Connie announced that she had been having serious second thoughts about relocating from the Back Bay to northern New Hampshire, and in fact, that she was developing a similar case of cold feet over being engaged to the sort of man who would even consider such a move.
Not two weeks later, the ring had arrived at his apartment in its original box, strapped to a bottle of Cold Duck.
Zack sighed and combed his dark brown hair back with his fingers. They were striking, expressive fingers—sinewy, and so long, even for the hands of a six-footer, that he had taken to sending to a medical supply house in Milwaukee for specially made gloves. Early on, those fingers had set him apart in the operating room, and even before that, on the rock face.
He gazed to the northwest and swore he had caught a glimpse of Mirror, an almost sheer granite face so studded with mica that summer sun exploded off it like a star going nova.
Lion Head…Tuckerman Ravine…Wall of Tears…
There was so much magic in the mountains, so much to look forward to. True, life in Sterling might prove less stimulating than in the city. But there would be peace and, as long as he could climb, more than enough excitement as well.
And, of course, there would be the practice itself—the challenges of being the first neurosurgeon ever in the area.
In less than twenty-four hours, he would be in his own office in the ultramodern Ultramed Physicians and Surgeons clinic, adjacent to the rejuvenated Ultramed-Davis Regional Hospital.
After three decades of preparation and sacrifice, he was finally set to get on with the business of his life—to show his world, and himself, exactly what he could do. The prospect blew gently across what apprehensions he had, scattering them like dry leaves.
Connie or no Connie, everything was going to work out fine.