TJ shifted in the burgundy leather couch in Clark Willoughby’s office and watched the Senator stare out the window to the street below, where three satellite trucks from cable news networks had gathered. It was a small turnout by Washington standards, but for Salvation Point this was a Big Deal. Sheriff Killinger had gone all out holding a joint press conference with the park service, promising a thorough search for the Senator’s daughter and asking the media to respect the family’s privacy.
The sheriff had sidestepped questions about a rumored parachute sighting, saying only that all leads were being pursued. He’d pursued that particular lead over and over in his interview with TJ, until the exhausted river guide wasn’t sure what he’d seen and wished he’d never spoken up about it. So focused was he on the falling object, the sheriff never got around to asking about the granola couple. When the sheriff’s questioning ended, instead of being allowed to go home, TJ had been delivered to the Senator and his wife, who pressed the issue further.
“I know you understand that it’s my daughter up there,” the Senator said, turning from the window and sitting next to TJ on the couch. “So let’s go through it one more time – what did you see?”
TJ rubbed his eyes and looked at Mrs. Willoughby, leaning against the desk, shellshocked. He felt for her.
“I saw an airplane,” he said, slowly. “There was a lot of smoke coming from the cabin, not the engines. Just before it went out of sight, something fell away from it. I don’t know what it was.”
“Was it a person?” Mrs. Willoughby asked.
TJ looked from her weary face to the Senator and back, then to the floor.
“I can’t say,” he mumbled.
The distraught mother stifled a sob. “But someone is up there looking for her, right? Do you think they will find her?” Her words got lost in her tears, and the Senator went to comfort her.
TJ was thankful for her breakdown. It meant she couldn’t look him in the eye and demand an answer. The fact was, no one had heard from the couple in the six hours since they parted at the trailhead.
“Maybe it’s time for you to rest, Gracie.” The Senator went to the door and motioned for a secretary, who gathered Mrs. Willoughby and led her out of the office.
“Tell me about that couple, son,” the Senator said, returning to the office, folding his arms, and meeting TJ’s eyes. “Should I have any confidence that they are in any better shape than my daughter?”
“They seemed capable of making the hike,” TJ said. “I’m not sure they were … I’m not sure they are experienced outdoor types, but,“ he trailed off. “They were from Seattle.” He wasn’t sure why he added that.
“They gave you names?” the Senator asked.
“They did,” TJ said. “Howe. He said their names were Paul and Lillian Howe.”
The Senator’s head drooped and his eyes narrowed on TJ.
“Paul and Lillian Howe,” he repeated flatly.
“That’s right,” TJ said.
“Son, I think you’ve been had.” The Senator sighed. “Anybody who’s been to a book store at the park knows who Paul and Lillian Howe were. Paul and Lillian Howe disappeared on the river in 1923.”
* * *
The disappearance of Paul and Lillian Howe was indeed a popular chapter in the lore of the Benjamin-Henry River, and there were indeed prominent displays of books on the subject in the bookstores at the Many Lost Ways visitor centers. That is precisely where the man got the names he gave to the river guide, who thankfully wasn’t an avid reader.
“That kid saw the packet being ejected,” the woman said. “Maybe we should abort, we should have found it by now.” Her name was Perkins, and she was getting annoying.
“I don’t care,” spat Lars. “He was an idiot. He doesn’t know what he saw and by the time anyone figures it out we’ll have our hands on it. Shut up so I can hear the beacon.”
He held the smart phone – which wasn’t really a smart phone – in front of him. The screen glowed green on his face in the failing sunlight. Their job was to find the packet, distribute the sensors it contained at the GPS coordinates provided, gather soil samples from those locations, and return them to their contact in Albuquerque. For this they would each receive $500,000. They didn’t care about why, or who.
* * *
“You’ve been honest about everything and you didn’t do anything wrong.” Annie tried to reassure TJ over a mountain of chili-cheese fries at a booth in the back of Janibelle’s. “They’re worried parents, you can’t blame them for being upset.”
“I know, but I feel responsible.” He took a long drink. “Why would those people lie about their names? And why am I the only idiot who wouldn’t have caught it? If Sarah Willoughby survived that plane crash, she’s still going to turn up dead because I didn’t recognize the most famous names in Lost Ways history.”
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Annie soothed. “You didn’t miss the biggest questions. Like what was she doing on the plane? Where was she going? And who else was on board? Don’t you think it’s odd that no one has talked about that?”
TJ wasn’t so sure. Aviation was a way of life for a lot of people in this part of the country. Some people even commuted to work daily in their own planes. The notion that Sarah Willoughby hitched a ride with a friend and didn’t tell anyone wasn’t so farfetched.
“One of her latest pet projects could have been flying lessons,” he shrugged.
“Maybe. It’s still fishy,” Annie fidgeted with her milkshake straw. She was on duty in the morning, and looked longingly at TJ’s beer.
“So,” he said, changing the subject. “They’re looking for search party volunteers. Do I sign up?”
“Absolutely not.” She didn’t hesitate. She always saw things clearly, and TJ liked that. A lot. “You’re already more involved than you want to be. Lay low. Go to work. Mind your own business.”
She stood and fished a 20 from her pocket. “Look, I have to make a run to Globe tomorrow and then bring some extra back the day after. Call me if you hear anything, and I will see you when I get back, OK? Mind your own business.”
He nodded thanks. He started to stand, but she put a hand on his shoulder as she walked past. He wanted a more formal goodbye. He wasn’t sure if she knew that and was letting him down easy, or if it was just her nature to not be affectionate.
Should she be affectionate to him? He wasn’t sure. He’d come to Salvation Point a year ago, fleeing a cubicle future in an insurance company call center. He’d met dozens of rugged individuals, many of whom were friendly and helpful, but he hadn’t really connected with anyone – except Annie. They met in this same booth, both of them waiting for takeout.
They’d shared hours of conversation, hiked together, seen each other at parties and in recent weeks had begun to spend time together at each other’s places. But it had not turned romantic or physical. He was thankful for the good friend and wasn’t sure if he was willing to risk that. Complicating things was her job, which was unpredictable and took her away for two or three or four days at a time.
No, for now he would be content with her friendship, her good advice, her clear thinking, and her strength. In the days ahead, that strength would prove crucial for them both.