Jay couldn't believe how quickly the last two weeks had flown past, or how easily everything had come together. Steven had been more than happy to see her leave; he'd even offered to pay for her tickets, hoping, she supposed, to bring her around to his way of thinking with his bribe. She'd refused. The travel passes for Glenraven had arrived two days after she'd written off to the address in the guidebook; Glenraven apparently had the most efficient bureaucrats in the world. She'd made all the arrangements for herself and Sophie because she was afraid Sophie would change her mind if Jay let her. And Sophie needed something to bring her back to life.
And here they were. Hard as it was to imagine, she and Sophie were biking away from Turin, where they'd spent a day resting before heading on to Glenraven.
Jay discovered that biking through northwestern Italy into the Alps could have easily been her destination instead of simply a throughpoint. She knew she wasn't the first traveler to end up breathless from looking at the scenery, nor would she be the last. But western Italy was new and wondrous and fresh to her. Better yet, the traffic had thinned once they were outside of Turin, and she and Sophie could finally talk.
"So how is Mitch doing?" she asked.
Sophie pedaled to catch up with her; the women rode side by side on S25, heading west toward Susa and Bardonecchia in Italy's mountainous Valle d'Aosta region. Jayjay thought the Italian drivers were considerably better than Americans at noticing bicycles on the highway and not running them down, though the Italians seemed to think that speed limit signs referred to the speed below which a vehicle must never drop.
"Mitch? He's fine," Sophie said. Jay picked up a tinge of anger in her friend's voice. "He recently made senior partner and he wanted me to go to this convention in D.C. with him. He's happy and excited, and he acted like he thought if I went with him, I could be happy, too." She shook her head slowly. "He bought us horses a couple of weeks ago."
"You didn't even mention it."
"I almost can't talk about it. He said riding was something we had both loved, and that we had to get our lives back. He wants me to go riding with him." Her face clouded over with pain. "He asked me how I would feel about having a baby."
Jay winced. "Oh, God."
"As if we could replace Karen."
Jay knew Mitch. He was a nice guy, and Sophie was his sun and his air and his water, and he was doing everything he could do to bring back the person she had been before the tragedy. Jay didn't think that he'd suggested having a baby as a replacement for Karen, but she also could believe Sophie would see his suggestion that way.
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him that I'm thirty-five years old, and it's too late to think about babies. I told him we had our chance." She put her head down and pedaled harder, hard enough that Jay had to push herself to keep up. Jay could see Sophie's despair in the rounded lines of her shoulders, and she could see her anger in the stiffness of her body. Sophie said, "The way I feel right now isn't only because of the baby, or the horses, or his trip to Washington, or the fact that he thinks he knows how to make me a nice, happy mother again. It's terrible, Jay, but I feel so lost. I don't know if I love Mitch anymore, I don't know if I want to be married, I don't know anything. I think that's why I wanted to come along on this trip so much--to get a little breathing space."
"Kids . . ." Jay winced. "Steven asked me about kids a few weeks ago." She looked out over the countryside. Mountains lined the horizon off in the distance to either side of the road and rose majestically ahead, as well. Every twist in the highway brought some new and wonderful scene into view; she wished she could concentrate on the scenery. She wished she hadn't mentioned Steven or that fateful conversation. "I always wanted them."
"I know." Sophie gave her a quirky little smile. "You used to talk about it a lot. I really expected you would end up with your own garage band, including backup singers."
Sophie sighed and repositioned herself on her bike saddle. She thumbed the shifter into a lower gear as the road beneath them began to rise; Jay did the same.
They rode in silence for a long while. Jay looked at the scenery and wished she didn't have to be alone with her thoughts. Then out of nowhere, Sophie said, "I have to know this . . . and I . . . haven't had a chance . . . to ask you . . . before . . . now." Sophie panted a bit from the uphill charge. "Why Glenraven?"
They reached the peak and Jayjay slipped into high gear for the downhill glide, then grinned over at her. She left the last glimpse of the broad Po Valley behind her as she did so. "I wish I knew. I found that book in the bookstore, and suddenly I had to do this. I had to."
"You had to." Sophie thought about that for a moment, then nodded as if it made perfect sense to her. "Just like me."
Jay signaled a right turn at a little mountain shop that said CAI on the door. The tiny parking lot was empty. "CAI is Club Alpinisti Italiani," she told Sophie. "It's the approved source for guides into the Alps. I booked our guide through this office."
"This place is an office?" Sophie got those little vertical lines between her eyebrows as she looked at the building.
Jayjay felt her stomach turn a bit when she looked at it. "This branch must not be too busy; the main office told me it didn't even exist, but here it is, right where the guidebook said it would be."
Their tires crunched through the gravel.
"I hope someone is home," Sophie said. She sounded doubtful.
"We have someone waiting for us." Jay pulled her paper out of her jeans pocket and studied the name. "Signi Tavisti Lestovru." She put down the kickstand on her bike. That kickstand. She chuckled, looking at it. She'd insisted on having the kickstand installed, in spite of the horrified expression the mountain bike salesman had given her when she'd told him what she wanted. High-end mountain bikes weren't supposed to have kickstands, but Jayjay didn't care. She didn't intend to lean her twelve-hundred-dollar bike against a wall or drop it on the ground when she wasn't using it. The salesman had reluctantly put the stand on for her, acting very much as if he felt he were painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa the whole time.
She waited for Sophie, who hadn't been quite so assertive, and who, consequently, was looking for someplace safe to prop her bike.
Sophie at last decided the tall grass wouldn't hurt the hardware too much, and carefully laid the bike on its side. "It doesn't look like anybody is here."
Sophie was right. The CAI office's windows were boarded shut, and its roof sagged precariously in the middle. "I called ahead this morning before we left the hotel to make sure the guide would be ready for us; I didn't talk with him, but I talked with the office clerk . . . I think."
Sophie started up the walk, then stopped. "This place is entirely too creepy."
Jayjay agreed, but she didn't intend to let that keep her from Glenraven. She opened the door and walked in.
The inside of the place in no way resembled the outside. It was brightly lit and if it was antiquated in design, with its old wooden display cabinets and low, heavy-beamed ceiling, it was nonetheless well stocked with mountaineering supplies both modern and old-fashioned. A tan, weathered young man, gaunt as a marathon champion, walked into the main showroom when the bell attached to the door rang. He smiled, displaying the worst teeth Jayjay had ever seen in someone so young. However, the smile on his face disappeared as he looked from one woman to the other, to be replaced by an expression of polite puzzlement.
In French, he asked, "May I help you?"
Jayjay smiled broadly. "But of course," she told him, also in French. "I am looking to meet my guide, one Signi Tavisti Lestovru--"
"I am Lestovru," he said. He looked, if possible, even more puzzled than before. "But you . . . you are perhaps looking for a guide to Saint Vincent or Breuil-Cervinia?"
Jayjay sighed. She had not talked with this man; she had talked with a very American-sounding woman who had been delighted to help her set everything up. She and the woman who took her call had discussed the odd fact that there was only one guide certified to lead parties to Glenraven. Frankly, Jay had been surprised to find any guides, considering the country had just opened up. But if the woman who took her call had made sure Lestovru was here to meet them, certainly he would be aware of their destination.
Sophie tapped her on the shoulder, and Jay turned to see what she wanted. "What's he saying?" Sophie whispered.
Jay translated quickly. Sophie had missed Jayjay's childhood experience as the daughter of anthropologist parents, and hadn't taken her Spanish classes seriously; she spoke only English. Jayjay, on the other hand, had learned a fair amount of French, some Spanish, a little Inuit, and enough Japanese to get herself into trouble, but not enough to talk her way back out.
Jay leaned forward. "Did not the woman who arranged our trip tell you we would be traveling to Glenraven?"
Lestovru paled and looked behind him, as if he thought someone might overhear. "Where?" he whispered.
Jay frowned. She pulled the Fodor's guide out of the inner pocket of her jacket and held it out with the title plainly showing. "Glenraven," she said, pointing at the title.
He stared at the book. "May I see that?"
Jay felt oddly proprietary about the guidebook. She was reluctant to let it out of her hands, but she passed it to him anyway.
The young guide hefted it from hand to hand, though he didn't open it or flip through the pages. He tipped his head to one side and squinted at it as though he had never seen a guidebook before. Then he nodded and passed the book back to her. "Do you have your travel passes?"
"Mine and hers." Jay pulled two archaic squares of hand-quilled parchment from her document pouch. She had been amazed when they'd arrived in the mail only two days after she sent off for them. She couldn't read a word on either pass, or even make out the letters of the alphabet. They looked so . . . unofficial. She hoped Lestovru wouldn't be as shocked by their appearance as she'd been. She held them out to him.
He clicked his tongue as he looked at them, then shrugged. "So you are the ones. I would not have thought--" His demeanor changed then. He straightened and met her eye and smiled again, displaying his dreadful teeth. "Just so. You were not as I imagined." Jayjay wondered if he tried to imagine his other clients before he met them. It seemed an odd remark. Lestovru, though, was still talking. "My job is to get you there safely, and that I will do; after all, who am I to question?" After he offered this comment to thin air, he rubbed the palms of his hands together briskly and told her, "First, we must exchange currencies. Your money will not spend within . . . Glenraven . . ." His voice dropped to a whisper as he said the name. " . . . And nowhere within the country is there a facility that can easily exchange monies."
Jayjay had been prepared for this. Her Fodor's mentioned the difficulty of exchanging currency, and warned that only at the CAI office--before entering the country--could an exchange to spendable currency be made. In Glenraven no Mastercard, Visa, checks or traveler's checks were accepted; no Western Union existed to rescue out-of-cash travelers with money wired from home. "Coin of the realm and barter" were, the guide claimed, the two acceptable methods of payment.
She handed him her traveler's checks, and he exchanged them for the precious metal dachrras of Glenraven. When he pushed the pile of coins over to her, he said, "This is a great amount of money. Do you have something to carry it in?"
Jayjay had been warned by her handy guidebook about the weight of the money. She nodded. "A money belt."
"Use it." He stared into her eyes then, long enough that she began to grow uncomfortable. "Don't let anyone know how much you carry. For such an amount, even those otherwise inclined to treat you kindly would be tempted."
He exchanged Sophie's money, but didn't say anything to her at all. Instead, he looked from one woman to the other with a speculative expression in his eyes. "Now we go," he told them when they'd both tucked the coins into money belts under their sweatshirts. "We shall put your bicycles on the back of my car and drive as far as Bardonecchia. Beyond that point, we ride."
"We knew that. We enjoyed our ride here," Jay said. "We're looking forward to the trip to Glenraven."
He frowned. "Perhaps you are, though when you have been for a time in a place without the modern comforts, you will come to miss all of this." His gesture encompassed the outdated little store with its several bare lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling and its worn, sagging floors, as though it epitomized modern convenience.
She sighed. He'd decided she fit the stereotype of the spoiled American; someone who didn't know what it was like to bathe in a river or wash her clothes on a rock or live without electricity. Oh, well. She wasn't any more impressed with him than he seemed to be with her, but she wouldn't have to put up with him once she and Sophie reached Glenraven. They could dump him when they got to their first destination, and find somebody personable to guide them out on the trip back.
Once she got into Glenraven, everything would get better. She didn't know how she knew that, but she knew it.
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