A Find in Lost Ways, Conclusion

“If I don’t see your lazy hide in this office in fifteen minutes, you’re out of a job!” LaVerne Hinks slammed the receiver onto its cradle and swore under his breath. “Rotten kids.”

He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and pressed his fingers to his temples. The last forty five minutes had been a frustrating gauntlet of demands from management, crew no-shows, and equipment breakdowns. Jake and Aaron – the yard crew for the day – started the melee with back-to-back phone messages announcing illness. LaVerne was disappointed in Aaron – he showed a promising interest in the transportation business – but Jake was a lost cause. Then the regional VP requested the business car the Senator had used be prepped and routed to San Diego for a customer. Jake and Aaron would have handled that, if they weren’t hungover in the back of some pickup or wherever they’d passed out.

Two locomotives wouldn’t start.

A conductor twisted his ankle dismounting a cut of cars.

The dispatch computers were on the fritz.

The only coffee left was decaf.

But those were minor frustrations, stuff he dealt with every day. What put his stomach in knots today was Annie. Her rushed message said she wouldn’t be available for a couple of days, she didn’t know when she’d be back, and she’d call when she could. It was a major fly in the scheduling ointment, but more importantly an uncharacteristically flaky move from his most reliable engineer. He was angry, but mostly he was worried.

He leaned forward, rubbed his eyes, and swore again. Then LaVerne Hinks, Superintendent of the Four Corners Division of the FCFL rail network, rose from his chair and walked to a utility closet, retrieved a vacuum cleaner and dust rags, and made his way out to the luxury business car waiting in the yard.

* * *

The two-hour trail ride by horse from The Column to Herbst Junction was one of Mayer’s favorite things about field work in Many Lost Ways. He loved the change in temperature and vegetation during the descent into the canyon, and the sound of hooves clattering on the rocky trail thrilled him.

Today he would have rather been anywhere else.

Mayer rode second in line behind Lars, and behind them a third man whose name Mayer didn’t know. It didn’t matter – the man never spoke, just glared straight ahead. A jagged scar started on the middle of the man’s left cheek and carved a deep arc upwards until it disappeared behind mirrored sunglasses. They each rode a horse with a pack horse behind, six ponies altogether. They were dressed in casual outdoor gear, but Mayer knew that beneath the billowy Columbia shirts his companions wore, there was serious firepower.

This all looked good on paper, he thought.

“So we’re going to put two boxcars worth of stuff on three horses?” he asked. He knew the plan – they would make several trips – but he wanted the men to speak.

They didn’t.

“So, two trips today?” He rubbed the reigns with his thumbs. “Maybe three?”

Lars looked over his shoulder, glaring.

They rode on in silence, neither man speaking even when they entered the narrow switchbacks just above Herbst Junction. The horses tiptoed along, sometimes brushing Mayer’s legs against the rock face. When the trail widened and the grade eased, they saw through the trees to the railway junction below. Lars pulled to a stop, signaling the others to do the same. For the first time in two hours, he spoke. When he spoke, he cursed.

There was the tiny hamlet of Herbst Junction: the Navajo jewelry stand, the sun-battered pickup with thick grass growing in the wheel wells, the tiny railway depot shared with the park service for a backcountry office. There was a dusty jeep, parked hastily in the employee spot.

There was the siding.

Empty.

* * *

LaVerne took pride in his work, be it making the trains run on time or taking out the trash. He saw no shame in cleaning the business car, and worked at every detail with the gusto he gave to managing the railroad. It was part of his character, deep and firm, that made him a respected leader not only in the railway, but in the community. He was everyman, and he was bourgeois. Few people knew that he and Clark Willoughby were close, the Senator looking to the Superintendent for the mood of the electorate. He wasn’t alone.

From his little yard office or his stool at the breakfast counter at Janibelle’s, Vern Hinks quietly took meetings with everyone from the mayor of Salvation Point to the Governor of Arizona. When the park service wanted to know how a new wildlife management agenda would go over with ranchers, they’d ask Vern. When the railroad and the highway department clashed over grade crossings, it was Vern who mediated. When business leaders considered locating in Salvation Point, the Chamber of Commerce made sure they met with Vern. When Senator Willoughby sponsored a bill on locomotive emissions and fuel economy standards, it was hailed by rail industry leaders as common sense regulation and by environmentalists as effective climate protection. The Senator had Vern to thank for that.

So it pained him that Sarah Willoughby was missing, under such odd circumstances, and he could do nothing about it. Pained him, but didn’t slow him. He learned long ago that worry was best extinguished by hard work, so in thirty minutes he had vacuumed the carpets and upholstery, dusted the woodwork and tabletops, washed the windows and polished the brass. He was reaching behind an overstuffed armchair to replace a wastebasket, his knee on the seat, when he noticed a scrap of paper peeking up from behind the cushion. He snatched it and was about to crumble it up, but the scrawled words made him pause.

It was on FCFL stationary, the courtesy tablets placed on the writing desks before every trip. The top line, scrawled hastily in the soft penmanship of a woman, said “statement for after.”

“I am profoundly saddened and angered that the disappearance of my daughter, and the bravery and sacrifice of so many searchers, would be overshadowed, and even used for cover by vandals.”

“Vandals?” LaVerne furrowed his brow and read on.

“The Column has long been a symbol of this great park, and of the beauty of the southwest. It’s destruction by so ferocious an attack is an assault on our very way of life.”

What in the world? Vern thought. There was more.

“Further, this act makes it plain that these wonderful resources, so remote and so vulnerable, are better cared for by commercial enterprise. Development of these lands, careful, thoughtful development, will ultimately be their best protection.”

Vern reached for his hip, withdrew his cellphone, and dialed the park office at Herbst Junction.

“Herbst Junction backcountry office, this is Chip.”

“Chip, Vern Hinks. How’s things down there today?”

“Umm, you lookin’ for Annie?”

“As a matter of fact,” Vern said. “Also wondering if anything exciting happened lately. Hows that column of yours?”

“I, um, guess it’s fine,” Chip said. “Haven’t been up there in a couple of days. Been busy with the search and all. Annie tore in here a few hours ago, she was in a real hurry. I made her buy a permit, then she practically sprinted up the trail. I couldn’t stop her in time to tell her to move her Jeep. Geez Vern, is everything OK?”

“I don’t know, Chip,” Vern pressed his fingers to his temples again. “Write down everything you see today, OK? And be careful.”

Vern sat in the big chair and read the scribbled words again. The Senator had arrived the night before last, when the early stages of the volunteer search effort were underway. It wasn’t too odd that he would reference that. But what was this bit about vandalism of The Column? Destruction even? Chip would have known about something like that. He turned the page over in his fingers, puzzling. The line about commercial enterprise and development was baffling, too. Willoughby was a Republican, friendly to business, but surely he undertsood that Many Lost Ways was the biggest money maker for the people of his district. Development around the park was always part of his agenda. But in the park? It was impractical and politically toxic. Then there was that line scratched hastily across the top, “statement for after.” After what?

Something was up. Vern didn’t want to be involved, but too many questions were gnawing at him. He decided to pay a visit to the man who could answer them.

* * *

TJ’s head pounded. He stooped by the river and cupped his hands, splashing cold water on his face and scrubbing at the lump on his forehead. His hands came away clean, which told him he wasn’t bleeding anymore. He was thirsty, but didn’t trust the river water for drinking. He soaked his T-shirt in the water, sat back on his heels, wrapped the cool cloth around his head and closed his eyes.

What day was it?

He remembered calling Annie. He’d known she was working and wouldn’t answer her phone, so he’d waited for the beep and talked as fast as he could, wanting to tell her everything about Sarah Willoughby, secret copper mines, his location, his raft being sunk. He’s not sure how much he actually got out. Everything went black, and when he came too – minutes later? hours? – his head was ringing and the Senator’s daughter was gone. Had she hit him with something? Someone else? It was all a fog.

He’d decided to abandon his pursuit of Sarah Willoughby. First off, he was no longer certain she was alone. Second, his head really hurt and he wanted to try to move closer to potential help. And, he had no idea which way she had gone. So he wandered downhill until he caught sight of the river, and followed it south. He’d been walking for at least an hour, he figured, but he wasn’t sure.

He rested another moment, then hefted himself to his feet and continued, unsteadily, along the river. He was dehydrated and weak. The sun beat down, high in the sky and bright white so he could barely open his eyes. He had picked up a walking stick somewhere – he didn’t remember doing it – but now he used it as a crutch, picking along the rocky riverbank.

As he walked, his mind wandered back to Annie. He hadn’t realized until this ordeal in the wilderness how frequently she invaded his thoughts. For weeks he’d sensed a growing fondness, maybe a crush. But limping along in the heat, his brain throbbing, his fate uncertain, so much to worry about and so much to do, he still dwelt on her. No, it was more than a crush. He was falling for her, he was certain of it.

Or was he delirious? Like those people who have near-death experiences, was his mind shutting down, and placating him with comforting sensations?

Or was that really her voice?

* * *

“Clark, how are you holding up?” Vern shook Clark Willoughby’s hand, put his other hand on the Senator’s shoulder, and looked him square in the eye. “You look tired. How’s Grace?”

“I am tired, Vern,” Senator Willoughby said. “Grace, poor Gracie. She’s gone to stay with her sister for a while. It’s too close for her here, she said she needed to not be so close to the search. Me, I can’t imagine being anywhere else but, she’s more fragile I guess.”

Vern nodded and clapped the Senator’s back. Willoughby moved behind his desk and sat, Vern took a chair in front.

“Real nice of you to stop by.” He leaned back in his chair and exhaled deeply. “Your support means a lot, always has.”

Vern nodded again and looked at the floor, taking the scrap of paper from his pocket. He unfolded it and held it between his knees, where the Senator couldn’t see it. He hoped it wouldn’t unravel decades of friendship.

“Clark,” he sighed. “I need your help with something.”

* * *

Chip didn’t have a good feeling about the three men dismounting from their horses outside his little office. The taller one stayed outside and seemed to be peering into the windows of Annie’s Jeep, while the other two strode in, businesslike, and approached the tiny counter where he sold backcountry permits. There was an edge to them that wasn’t tourist, and wasn’t search volunteer. He tried not to sound uneasy when he spoke.

“How’d the trails treat you fellas?”

The shorter one started to reply but the taller, meaner one spoke over him.

“Who do we see about rail freight?” His eyes were stone, his voice cold and hard.

“Geez I don’t know,” Chip said. “Closest office I think is in Salvation Point. I see crews in here once in a while dropping off paperwork but otherwise.” He trailed off, shrugged.

“Where do they drop the paperwork?” The man leaned on the counter, eyes locked on Chip.

Chip nodded toward the locked Dutch door across from the counter. There was a mail slot, and a plastic organizer hung from the wall with various forms tucked in the pockets.

“It’s all locked up,” he said. “I don’t have a …”

The man withdrew a large pistol from under his shirt.

“A key,” Chip finished weakly.

“Oh,” the man said, his eyes following the gleaming barrel to Chip’s forehead. “I reckon somebody does. Why don’t you give somebody a call. I’m sure they’d be happy to come help some, ah, fellow employees”

“Ya… yeah, sure,” Chip stammered. With shaking hands he lifted the receiver and dialed Vern’s cell phone.

“Chip?” Vern answered. “You alright?”

Thank God!

“Oh, sure thing Vern,” Chip said. “Got a, um, train crew here that say they need to get in to the office. Can you please bring a key? Please?”

“Good,” the man said. “Now, outside.”

* * *

Hiking down the switchbacks over Herbst Junction was tricky enough, but shouldering the weight of a stumbling, barely coherent TJ took all the stamina Annie could find. They were nearly there, though, so she gritted her teeth and pushed the pain and fatigue from her mind.

“Come on, you big lug.”

The grade evened out and the trail widened, and she paused in the same spot Lars and the others had to survey the junction below. Her heart sank.

The sight of Chip, kneeling on the ground with a very large pistol pointed at his head, made her sad.

The sight of her Jeep, sitting where she’d parked it – but with four slashed tires – made her angry.

* * *

Clark Willoughby had called out the cavalry. He rode with LaVerne Hinks in the second of two National Guard helicopters, and the two men in their late fifties were quite a sight as they tumbled from the craft as it touched down in Herbst Junction. Soldiers and state police led the charge to the parking area behind the backcountry office, but when they got there the fight they had prepped for didn’t materialize.

Annie and Chip sat comfortably next to two squirming forms, dusty men with their hands and feet bound by the plastic seals used to secure railcars. Mayer sat nearby, his head in his hands. TJ was propped up in the shade of a tree, a bottle of water in his lap and a peaceful grin on his face. As the group approached, he called out.

“Man, you should have seen her!” He laughed like he was drunk. He felt like it. “The other guy helped, and Chip held his own, but wow. Don’t mess with a girl’s Jeep, hey?”

Annie rose and met the leading officer.

“There’s two bad guys who won’t say much,” she said. “And a geologist with a bad conscience who has a lot to get off his chest.”

The soldiers and officers fanned out, tending to TJ, getting Lars and his partner upright and properly handcuffed, securing the office and nearby bushes while unfurling yards of yellow tape.

When Mayer saw Senator Willoughby, he wept.

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m just so sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone! It was her own daughter, you know? They seemed like they were in on it together. I hope she’s OK. I just hope she’s OK!”

Willoughby looked at him pitifully.

“Arrest him just like the others.” He motioned to an officer.

The officer approached Mayer and reached for his wrist, but the geologist squirmed away and made a feeble attempt to flee. He landed face down in the dust a few yards away, and three officers made quick work of shackling him.

* * *

Twenty-four hours later, TJ sat comfortably in a hospital bed waiting for the doctor to sign his discharge orders. Vern and Annie waited with him, she for moral support, Vern to give them both a ride.

“So how much of this ridiculous scam was he actually in on?” Annie asked.

“He says not much,” Vern said. “I’m inclined to believe him. I’ve known Grace Willoughby for a lot of years, and she is every bit the politician he is. I have no doubt she could engineer something this massive. She’s as well connected, if not better, than he is. Or was – I think he’d be lucky to be elected dog catcher ever again.”

“I still don’t get how she thought she could mine copper in secret.” Annie thoughtfully unpacked a shirt and pants from the bag she had brought from TJ’s camper.

“There wasn’t ever going to be a copper mine.” Vern shook his head. “The idea was to damage the Column, ruin the land so the park service would deaccession it. Then it would be ripe for development. Grace Willoughby’s family has an interest in a big construction firm out here, and Clark had arranged for some nice contracts. Like most lawmakers, he didn’t read them enough to realize they were for proposed work in the park.”

TJ stood and began to slide into his pants while trying to hold his robes closed.

“Any sign of Sarah or Grace Willoughby?” he asked.

“None,” Vern said. “It’s still tearing Clark apart, but he’s relieved that you saw her alive and well.”

“So that’s Sarah and Grace Willoughby missing, but I think they’ll lay low for a while. What concerns me,” Vern looked sternly at Annie. “Is the two boxcars of unspecified material, likely dangerous in nature, that have also gone missing.”

Annie dodged his gaze and looked out the window. “Happens all the time, Vern.”

“Well, I also have two missing yard hands,” he said. “Not smart ones. And while they don’t know much, I think they know where those boxcars are.”

She looked at him, startled. “Oh, no.”

“Yeah, well,” Vern said. “It’s your problem now.”

“I know, I screwed up,” Annie said. “I’ll try to find them.”

“Don’t try, kid.” Vern put his hands on her shoulders. “You just have to get it done. That’s what the superintendent does. Congratulations.”

“What?” She was incredulous. “Was all this too much for you? Are you quitting?”

“I wish,” he chuckled. “I got a call from the Governor. Seems a Senator has resigned and she needs to appoint a replacement.”

Annie gave him a hug. “I’ll miss you. You think I can handle this? Really?”

“You know you can handle this,” he said. “And I won’t let you miss me. The FCFL employs half my district. I have a keen interest in seeing that it’s run right.”

The doctor arrived and handed TJ his paperwork. The three made their way down to Vern’s truck and drove to TJ’s camper.

Annie got out and walked TJ to the door. He opened it and they lingered a moment.

“You want a ride to your place, Annie?” Vern called from the cab.

She thought a moment, then put her arms around TJ’s neck and pulled him close.

“Nah,” she said, keeping her eyes on TJ’s. “I think I’ll stay here a while.”

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A Find in Lost Ways, Part 7

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?”

yard

“You mean, like, lose them?” he eyed her warily.
“Only for a little while,” she said.
“Sure,” he shrugged. “Happens all the time.”

“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.

A Find in Lost Ways, Part 6

Paperwork complete and signals clear, Annie’s hand was reaching for the throttle when the radio chirped and Javier gestured for her to wait.

“Looks like we got a late add,” the conductor said, poking the touch screen of his onboard computer. “Just two. Couple of boxcars for us to drop at … Herbst? Is that right?”

“Herbst Junction?” Annie wrinkled her brow. “Really?”

“That’s what it says,” Javier keyed the mic and radioed the tower.

Herbst Junction was a tourist stop on the border of Many Lost Ways National Park. Backpackers took the steam train from Salvation Point there to hike into the backcountry. Crews used the short siding there as a runaround when sorting cars for the Flagstaff local, and occasionally as overflow when the Red Earth Co-op siding got crowded. But Herbst Junction was almost never listed as a destination for freight.

“Yardmaster says it’s right,” Javier reported. “Looks like … ‘mechanical equipment,’ no other description. Light loads – only five tons per car. This is weird.”

“Well,” Annie sighed. “At least they’ll be a couple thousand feet behind us.”

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“Well,” Annie sighed. “At least they’ll be a couple thousand feet behind us.”

* * *

TJ looked over the river to the spot where his raft had disappeared into the current, then paced to the edge of the trees and stared in the direction Sarah Willoughby had fled.

He had a decision to make.

On an ordinary day, he could sit on the riverbank and within a couple of hours a raft trip would come by and pick him up. But there were no trips today, and he wasn’t sure there would be any tomorrow. He could follow the river on foot, a good 12 or 15 miles to the takeout at Herbst Junction, but the trail was iffy at best. He could turn inland to the backcountry and hope to come across the searchers.

Or he could try to follow the Senator’s daughter.

He breathed deeply for a moment, then plunged into the trees.

Tall and lean, and in reasonably good shape, he would have no trouble running down the presumably exhausted girl, if he went in the right direction. He scanned about for trails and saw at least five possibilities. Would she have gone uphill? Would she stick to the river? Would she stay in the cover of the trees?

TJ imagined a true outdoorsman would have useful insight, and he chastized himself for lacking such clarity. It was a conversation that constantly raged in the back of his mind – a small voice insisting that he belonged in a cubicle after all. He was constantly working to convince himself that he was strong enough, smart enough, clever enough to live this independent, unconventional life. Moving to the wilderness and living on the fringe wasn’t a lark. He was the real deal. He repeated it to himself over and over, but didn’t really believe it.

He wondered where Annie was, and wished she were with him. He wished he could ask her advice. She would know precisely which trail to follow. But if she had been along, he considered, they would probably be paddling home with Sarah Willoughby right now instead of wandering the woods with no way to even call for help.

He decided on the path of least resistance, not because he reasoned that she would, but to preserve his own energies. He jogged along the flattest path, which ran close to the river just inside the trees. He rounded a corner and for the second time in an hour came across Sarah, leaning against a tree.

She hadn’t seen him. She was 50 feet up the trail, tucked to the side in the shade, a bulky satellite phone to her ear. It took TJ a moment to realize it. A phone! His own cell phone was probably at the bottom of the river by now, but even if he had it he wasn’t likely to get a signal here. Hers seemed to be working.

It only took him a moment to decide – he would simply overpower her, take the phone, hold her down while he summoned help.

“Yeah, sure you will,” he told himself, doubt taking hold.

But his feet were already thundering down the trail.

A Find in Lost Ways, Part 5

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.