The Graces had one son. He had blond hair to his shoulders and an exceptionally pretty face: his mother’s face, with his father’s long eyelashes. He was christened Taber Grace Jr, but his father, as his own life unraveled, began to call him TJ. He had given him the nickname he swore he never would, because maybe being called Taber Grace would just be bad luck.

Taber Grace knew that he had neglected his marriage to death. Even now, at times, he felt that the life he thought he would have ran parallel to this new, empty one. At times, he felt that back at his house, Taber Grace 1.0, proud, loving husband and father, was having pancakes with his wife and son.

Yet, here he was. He had walked from his marriage not into bars and strip clubs, but down into the sewage pipes that ran under other lives. A client might heft the manhole cover aside; Taber Grace made the descent.

And Taber Grace was the one who came back up covered in shit.


Summer was hiker and biker season in Breckenridge, Colorado, but winter was when the pretty little town really came to life. It was then that its true beauty shone — in the glow of the white peaks, in the sparkle of the fairy lights down Main Street, in the headlights of the groomers, in the bright, after-ski faces.

In winter, the population of Breck could go from three-and-a-half thousand to more than ten times that, yet its magic was how it held its ground and its charm. There were plenty of hotels, inns and condos to accommodate Breck’s visitors, and the newest was The Merlin Lodge amp; Spa. It was a small hotel in a small town with a big heart, and it had a mid-sized problem: it had opened too early.

‘That’s my opinion, anyway,’ said the desk clerk. His name, Jared Labati, was printed on a gold badge on his white shirt. The shirt was a size too small, his black pants a size too big. He was only in his late teens, yet strikingly at odds with the healthy image of the country’s skinniest state. His shaggy brown hair curled out at the ends and was combed forward and sideways across most of his wide face. It was a style for a slimmer kid. A tiny diamond ring shone in a right ear that was prominent enough to poke through his mass of hair.

Erica Whaley was standing at the check-in desk with her husband, Mark. ‘It didn’t say anywhere on the website that the hotel was brand new,’ she said. ‘Lucky us.’ She smiled.

Mark Whaley was holding his credit card paused in mid-air. He glanced at his wife. They laughed. ‘OK — go ahead,’ said Mark.

‘Did you have far to come?’ said Jared.

‘No — Denver,’ said Mark.

‘The rooms are completely finished — don’t get me wrong,’ said Jared, ‘and any extra work that needs to be done won’t happen on weekends, so it will be quiet during your stay. The major work is done … except for the Spa. Sorry.’ He directed this at Erica. But she had turned to see her three-year-old son, Leo, hanging upside down from the back of a brown leather sofa, his face red with the rush of blood.

Mark spoke to Jared. ‘Our son tests all surfaces and objects for suitability to climb or swing from.’ He paused. ‘Then climbs or swings from them, regardless of his findings.’

Erica sprinted for Leo, grabbing him under his arm and swinging him into the air.

Mark raised his eyebrows at Jared. ‘That was close. His Spidey sense is weak.’

Jared smiled.

‘OK, be honest,’ said Mark, leaning in to him, speaking quietly. ‘Will this be a comfortable stay? My little girl isn’t feeling too good.’ Mark’s eleven-year-old daughter from his first marriage, Laurie, was on the sofa reading a book, oblivious to her Spiderbrother.

‘You bet,’ said Jared. ‘They’re just doing some things like wiring, and putting fancy room numbers on the doors, etc.’

‘Hmm …’ said Mark. ‘No room numbers? That could be interesting.’

‘The doors are numbered with laser print-outs for now, don’t worry,’ said Jared.

‘OK,’ said Mark. ‘I just wanted to make sure that if the Parkers are coming back to reclaim Leo that they know which room to go to.’

Jared paused for a moment, then smiled. ‘Peter Parker is Spiderman, right?’

‘Yes, he is,’ said Mark, ‘just so we’re clear …’ He smiled, and turned around to see his wife struggling back to the reception desk with her bucking son jammed onto her hip and shouting at her to let him go.

‘Take him,’ said Erica to Mark. She almost dropped Leo at Mark’s feet. The little boy sprang up.

Erica shook her head. ‘He’s like those indestructible, I don’t know, zombies that you can’t kill — they keep coming back to life.’

Mark looked at Jared. ‘We don’t want to kill him,’ he said. ‘Honestly. Or return him to the Parkers.’

Erica had clearly heard the Parker reference before. She called, ‘Laurie, sweetie?’

Laurie closed her book and came over.

‘Just like that,’ said Erica, squeezing Laurie against her, and kissing the top of her head. ‘How are you feeling, sweetheart?’

‘I’m fine now,’ said Laurie. ‘I don’t know what happened, but the pain’s gone.’

Erica held the back of her hand to Laurie’s forehead. ‘No fever. And you’ve got good color in your cheeks. I pronounce you fit and well.’

Laurie smiled. ‘Why, thank you.’

Leo was swinging out from the reception desk, his feet working hard to climb to the top. He dropped to the floor and ran away.

‘Your turn,’ said Erica.

Laurie ran after him.

Jared went into the back office.

‘Loving the loose cannon desk clerk,’ said Mark.

‘I know,’ said Erica. She wrapped her arms around Mark, and kissed his neck. Then she moved up to his ear.

‘Is this about hotel sex?’ said Mark, leaning back.

Erica smiled. ‘That goes without saying,’ she said. ‘This is about dinner.’

‘What about Laurie … is she feeling better?’ said Mark. ‘Is she OK to be left with a sitter?’

‘Oh, she’s fine,’ said Erica. ‘I think it might have been a little attention seeking?’

‘Or she wanted to make sure we wouldn’t leave her to go to dinner,’ said Mark.

‘No,’ said Erica. ‘I was just talking to her, she said she was absolutely fine. So?’

Mark hooked his arm around Erica’s waist, and pulled her close. ‘I promised the kids I’d watch Toy Story 3.’

‘Well, I promised myself I wouldn’t lose my mind,’ said Erica. ‘So, you watch the movie, I’ll go down to the bar and pick up a snowboarder.’

‘Mrs Whaley,’ said Mark, ‘the kids and I can watch the movie while you take a bath, slip into something less comfortable, and by the time you have done the makeup I don’t think you need to wear, yet apply so beautifully, I’ll be ready to accompany you to the bar to oversee your choice of snowboarder.’

‘Deal,’ said Erica.

Jared came back to the desk. ‘Alrighty,’ he said, setting two keys on the desk.

‘Old-fashioned keys,’ said Erica. ‘Nice touch.’

‘You’ll be in Room 304,’ said Jared. ‘That’s on the third floor. Elevator is that way. You’ll be staying in a family suite — two inter-connecting rooms. Do you need help with your bags?’

‘No, thank you,’ said Mark.

‘Well, OK then. Enjoy your stay.’

‘Oh, we will,’ said Erica.

‘We’d like to arrange for a sitter to look after the kids for a couple hours, while we go down to dinner,’ said Mark.

‘Not a problem,’ said Jared. ‘For what time?’

‘Eight thirty for the sitter?’ said Mark. ‘Nine for dinner?’ He turned to Erica. ‘That’ll leave us some time to

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