TJ sprinted down the path and aimed himself at Sarah Willoughby. When he was about ten feet away, she saw him and stood. She turned her shoulder to him – the one with the heavy black backpack on it – and braced herself. Unsure of what to do, he pulled up at the last second and instead of bowling her over, he awkwardly stutter stepped into her waiting shoulder, catching the pack square in the chest. The impact was enough to make Sarah fumble the satellite phone, but left her standing over TJ on his back, the wind knocked from his lungs.
“Are you an idiot?” She looked down at him scornfully.
He lay motionless, humiliated and in pain. The phone sat face up, inches from his ear, a gruff male voice still streaming from the speaker.
“The supplies are enroute, supposed to be delivered to a place called Herbst Junction,” TJ heard it say. “Give us twelve more hours, then we’ll get you out. You don’t want to hang around there much longer than that.”
She snatched up the phone, punched “end call,” and stepped over his chest.
He grabbed her boot and she stumbled, landing with a knee and both hands to the ground.
“Let go of me!” she spat.
“Listen,” he barely got the word out. His lungs were burning. “Just let me make one phone call. Just to have somebody come get me. I’ll pretend I never saw you I swear.”
“You are an idiot.” She dropped to her elbows and struggled to free her foot, but he held firm.
“Probably,” he said. “But if you don’t let me use that phone I’m going to follow you for the next twelve hours. I’ve got nothing better to do.”
“The first thing you’re going to do is tell them you found me.” She pushed herself up and tried kicking him. He bear-hugged her ankle and rolled, pulling her to her elbows again. “Ouch! You IDIOT!”
“I’m tough to get rid of,” he said. “Even if I tell somebody, your people will have you out of here before they find you. You’d at least have a chance. If I stick around, you and your … whoever they are will have to deal with me. You don’t want that trouble on top of whatever you already have.”
She swore. “Fine.”
She reached for the phone and flicked it at TJ. He let go of her boot, sat up, and dialed.
* * *
At the moment TJ was dialing, Annie was two hours from Salvation Point at the throttle of her northbound train. Her cell phone was exactly where it was supposed to be, powered down in the bottom of her duffel on the floor of the locomotive cab.
When she got to Salvation Point yard, she tied up her train, finished her paperwork, clocked out, and drove home.
She showered, ate a can of soup, and looked through her mail.
She emptied her duffel bag and started a load of laundry.
Then she checked her phone.
TJ’s message chilled her. She threw on hiking shorts and a tank top, grabbed a jacket and backpack, stepped into her hiking boots and raced out the door. Ten minutes later her Jeep skidded to a stop outside the yard office.
“Where’s Vern?” She didn’t wait for the stunned yard grunt to answer.
The two boxcars had been cut from her train and were rolling to a stop in the yard, where they would be put on a local for delivery to Herbst Junction. Forgetting her training for a moment, she sprinted across the mainline and into the yard. She ran up to one of the boxcars and grabbed at the hasps holding the door shut. It was locked and a plastic car seal was looped through the latch, making it impossible to open without the intended recipients knowing. She pounded the door with her fist and ran to the next one, where she found the same thing.
“You alright?” It was Jake, one of the newbie yard hands.
“Jake! It’s Jake, right?” She brushed her hair from her face and flashed a flirty grin. It worked.
“Yeah.” He smiled and leaned against the box car. “Something I can do for you?”
“These two cars,” she nodded toward them. “I screwed up, they’re not supposed to be here. If Vern finds out he’s going to kill me. Think you can get them out of here? Anywhere other than Herbst Junction?”
“You mean, like, lose them?” he eyed her warily.
“Only for a little while,” she said.
“Sure,” he shrugged. “Happens all the time.”
“You’re the best!” She gave him a swift hug, then sprinted back to her Jeep. She cranked the engine and wheeled out of the lot, raising a cloud of dust on the road to Many Lost Ways National Park.