Mayer sat in his makeshift lab, turning a small plastic baggie filled with red sand between the thumb and forefinger on his right hand, pressing a cell phone to his ear with his left.
“The soil analysis is complete,” he reported. “Good levels of chalcopyrite, some bornite…”
“I don’t need a geology lesson. Is it going to be worth doing what they want to do?”
Mayer looked at the ceiling. Was it going to be worth it? Mayer had studied the Lost Ways strata for more than 15 years, first as an undergraduate. He fell in love with the place, like so many who went there did – especially The Column. Like Half Dome at Yosemite or the Garden Wall at Glacier, it was famous among outdoor types. Sacred. Magical. He’d given his career to that rock outrcopping. He’d spent summers with the USGS there. He had published a dozen papers about it. He had led field trips and digs. He’d given lectures.
And he hadn’t made a dime.
“We’ll all make millions,” he said.
“Good. How soon will it start?”
“The field sensors your people installed worked perfectly,” Mayer said. “I’ve completed the computer model and will have a blast plan and excavation plan by tonight.”
“Fine. I’ll get the supplies shipped. Get up there as soon as you can. Those search party volunteers are still crawling all over the place, you should be able to get in without a permit. I don’t think they’re even asking for anybody’s name.”
“Have they found any sign of the girl?” Mayer asked.
“She was told not to be found.”
* * *
Sarah Willoughby sat with her back against a tree trunk, her head slumped to the side with a tangle of dishwater hair over her face. She wore a dirty blue sweatshirt and khaki shorts, and a black backpack leaned against her shoulder. Grass and leaves were matted into her hair and clothing. Her shins were covered with bruises and scrapes.
TJ, like most people, had never discovered a body before. He approached apprehensively, taking one step, pausing, studying, then forcing himself to take another step. Then she stirred, and he took several quick steps backward.
“Hey, hey are you OK?” he called, gathering himself. “Are you Sarah?”
She lifted her head, rubbed her eyes, squinted at him.
Then she swore.
“Who are you?” she half asked, half scolded. “How did you get out here?”
She looked at him as though he had walked in on her in the shower.
“I was rafting.” He motioned toward the riverbank. “Are you hurt? Do you need … like, blankets or something?”
She looked at him, confused, drowsy, grumpy. Several seconds passed.
“I could use some water if you have some.”
He jogged back to the raft and returned with his bottle. She was pulling herself up, brushing off the debris.
“So are you Sarah Willoughby?” he asked. “Did you jump from the plane or …?”
She stretched her arms out in front of her then gathered her hair into a ponytail. She looked at the ground for a long moment, then sighed and looked into TJ’s face.
“I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m really thirsty, and I’m in a heck of a lot of trouble,” she said. “If I tell you I’m Sarah Willoughby, I think that gets you in trouble, too.”
TJ stared back. He blinked and handed her the water bottle. She took a long drink.
“I can help you,” he said. “I have a raft, we can be in Salvation Point in a couple of hours.”
“Getting me to Salvation Point right now is not exactly helping,” she said. “What would help is if you went away, and if anyone asks, you didn’t see me.”
“I can’t do that!” His voice was incredulous. “Half the world is looking for you, mostly because I saw you jump from an airplane.”
“At least I was right about that,” he added to himself.
She laughed a dismissive laugh.
“Yes, look at me here in my parachuting gear,” she rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t on an airplane. I hiked out here. Look, if you want to help me, go away.”
TJ was baffled. He could only stare.
“So you’re running away?” he asked. “Disappearing? I can relate to that.”
She just shook her head. They looked at each other with irritated, confused expressions.
“Go. Away.” She hefted the words at TJ like heavy objects.
“I can’t just leave you out here,” he said. “You don’t look good. You’re dehydrated. Let me take you home and I’m sure you can work out whatever trouble you’re in.”
“Not likely.” She took another long drink. “You seem like a nice guy. Eagle Scout even. But this isn’t normal trouble, OK? This is fake plane crash, pretend you’re dead, won’t be long until you really are kind of trouble.”
“Wait, you faked the plane crash?” TJ’s eyes were wide. “How do you fake a plane crash?”
“I didn’t,” she said flatly. “My dad did.”
She swore again, took another drink.
“Look, if we keep talking you’re going to be in over your head. Seriously, get back in your boat and go away.”
“I think I’m in over my head already.” He slumped on a rock, and another long, quiet moment passed.
“I get it that you don’t want me to help you,” he put his hands up. “But if I just leave you out here, I’ll never forgive myself for what happens to you. Why …”
She cut him off. “Why is none of your business.”
“Why is my business!” He was getting animated, which was rare. “You’re going to be in the news for a while, and my name seems to pop up when they talk about you. There are a couple hundred people wandering around this park because I said I saw something. Like it or not, I got involved in your drama long before I found you here. You owe me an explanation.”
She sat on a rock across from him and stared at the label on the water bottle. She drank the last of the water, sighed, and stared at the dirt between her boots.
“Would you believe me,” she started, looking up at him, “if I told you that my dad was involved in a conspiracy to secretly start mining copper out of Many Lost Ways National Park, and that the plane crash and my little disappearance here are supposed to distract everyone while he does it?”
TJ shook is head. “No. I don’t believe you. Try again.”
“That’s the truth,” she shrugged, and swore once again. “Alright, you asked. I told you to go away but you asked, so I’ll tell you. If knowing gets you killed, that’s on you.”
She took a deep breath, swore one more time.
“I got into some trouble at school. Something that could have put me in jail for long time. My dad got me out of it but ended up owing favors to people more powerful than him.”
“People who can crash planes,” TJ said.
“People who can crash planes by remote control,” she said. “And make people disappear. In order to not permanently disappear, my job was to wander around out here for a couple of days, but not get found. I’m supposed to get picked up by some of Dad’s people, I guess. That part’s pretty fuzzy.”
“So what happens while you’re wandering around out here?” TJ asked.
“That’s fuzzy, too,” she said. “Dad wanted to confirm that there was actually something worth mining out here, so there was some field station set up. If anybody came across it and got nosy, the search for me was supposed to be the cover. The equipment was on the plane and was supposed to be dropped before it crashed. It was all pretty high-tech. Pentagon stuff. Two people were supposed to hike up there to set it all up.”
“The Howes,” TJ said. He suddenly felt sick.
“Who?” Sarah asked.
“There were two people on my raft trip when the plane crashed,” he explained. “They told me they were Paul and Lillian Howe, and they went into the backcounty looking for you.”
“Dude, Paul and Lillian Howe disappeared like ninety years ago.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Everybody knows that.”
“Yeah, thanks, I found that out,” he said. “But a secret copper mine? That makes no sense. How do you keep that secret? And how can that be worth all this trouble?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m sure there’s more to it, but that’s all Dad shared with me.”
They sat in silence for several minutes.
“So, what now?” TJ asked.
“Well, I don’t know about you.” She rummaged through her pack. “I’m supposed to be missing, so I’m going to disappear.”
“I have to tell people that I found you,” TJ said.
“I figured you’d say that.” She pulled a multitool from her pack and opened it, quickly walking to TJ’s raft. She held the tool above her head, then plunged the knife blade into the inflatable. A sickening hiss filled the air. Then she pushed the raft – loaded with TJ’s pack, extra water, his phone – into the current. He stood stunned as the small blue craft swirled in the water, then snagged on a rock 30 feet from shore. As the last of the air escaped, the raft melted into the river and disappeared.
“I hope you find somebody to tell!” Sarah Willoughby called as she sprinted into the trees and disappeared.