Ryder Conway yawned as he walked into the Glacier Village community center. He found Lorne hovering over a large topographic map of Black Mountain and flopped into a chair, letting his heavy backpack slip off his shoulder and hit the floor with a loud thud.
“Anyone else respond to the callout?” he asked, rolling a cough drop from one side of his mouth to the other.
“Sunny and Fiona,” Lorne replied, glancing up from the map. “You don’t look so hot, Ryder. You sure you’re up for it?”
“Figured there wouldn’t be many. Everyone’s still up on the mountains for the Challenge, right?”
Lorne nodded and looked outside. “Storm came fast. Winds picked up quick. We didn’t see it coming. Got overrun by medical emergencies here.”
Ryder watched Lorne walk over and lean against the window. He felt an urge to throw an arm around his friend’s shoulder. Lorne looked suddenly tired, dark bags hung under his eyes and his shoulder seemed to melt against the glass. Ryder leaned forward to rise to his feet, but he felt a tickle in his nasal passages and sneezed twice instead. He sank back in his seat and sucked on the cough drop, enjoying a moment of relief as it cooled the fire in the back of his throat. “You worried about the search?”
“I’m always terrified that we won’t be able to bring someone back in alive.” Lorne walked back to the table briskly and rearranged a few random papers, refusing to meet Ryder’s gaze.
“You know what I mean. You mentioned the hiker’s name in the callout.”
“Did I? Well, that’s not so unusual, is it? Things have been crazy here, I didn’t put that much thought into it. We’ve had callouts in worse weather.” Lorne shuffled the same papers around again and scratched his head, making his already messy hair stick straight out in the back.
“Have we?” Ryder mimicked Lorne’s tone. “Well, I can’t recall one other callout where a name was mentioned. But, hey, if you say you’re not scared of retribution or hoping for a big fat thank-you cheque, I believe you.”
“You think I’m making a mistake, Ryder? We can still call it off.” Lorne’s voice had lost its aloofness. He was now speaking soberly and finally making eye contact.
“Not my call. That’s why you get paid the big bucks,” Ryder joked. Everyone knew that Lorne spent every spare penny of his pension on keeping Glacier Rescue running. “But seriously, nobody answers a callout unless they are able and willing. Anyone who doesn’t check off both boxes has got nobody to blame but themselves.”
“You and I both know that’s not true.”
“Well, you made the call and I’m here,” Ryder said, crushing the last sliver of cough drop between his molars. He got up and walked over to the window, stretching his arms and letting out a big yawn along the way. “What’s the latest forecast, anyway?”
“Well, looks like the storm could get really intense. Visibility could drop to zero and then there’s the wind chill factor. Who knows how low that could drop. But, if we get up there and back real quick, we just might be able to avoid the worst of it. Problem is, the boy could be anywhere in this area.” Lorne circled a large area on the map. “That’s a lot of ground to cover for three people.”
Sam arrived back at their campsite at Checkpoint 4 in good time. The group had slowed her down and she travelled much more quickly on her own. She veered west, following the route she had taken hours earlier when tracking Ben, although there were no longer any tracks to follow. The entire area was covered with fresh snow. Passing the large fallen tree limb, Sam continued forward until the mountain sloped slightly downhill. Then, she was there. She had returned to the avalanche hazard barrier she had installed two days earlier.
She was at the same viewpoint, but there was no view of the village, the valley, Mount Blue or endless peaks. It was pitch black and the thick, snowy fog seemed to dissolve the beam of light from her headlight. Gale-force winds pushed Sam to her knees as she inspected the barrier. Slowly, she crept along the entire ridge beside the barrier until she saw it. A gap where she should have installed the last section.
She looked downhill into the area where her satellite phone had fallen just days earlier. A lump formed in her throat. She had made such a stupid mistake and now Ben was missing. The evidence was clear. Her actions had directly caused pain, suffering and death. But now, Mom wasn’t her only victim. Thanks to her stupidity, Ben was too. So many idiotic mistakes, she thought. Fatal mistakes. But where was his body? Without a body, there was still a chance he was alive and a way for her to fix her mistake. But if she did find Ben’s body, the least she could do was bring him back to his family. She wasn’t going to leave him on the mountain to be discovered by other hikers, where, eventually, his body would become a part of the mountain, like all those people who had tried to summit Mt. Everest and not survived. She couldn’t let people use him as a route marker. “Turn left when you come up on the Ben Black boy, then it’s just a short hike to the top of Black Mountain” she imagined people would say. No way. She couldn’t let that happen. He deserved a proper goodbye, to be given the chance to rest in peace, and it was her responsibility to make sure he got one, since she had failed at keeping him safe as his group leader for the Challenge, failed at doing the one thing Dad, Mom and Lorne had instilled in her.
The sound of thunder cracked behind her. Sam turned her head just as a large tree branch flew directly at her, hitting her climbing helmet and knocking her backwards over the edge and down into the steep bowl below. As the storm raged on around her, Sam’s body lay in the deep cold snow, motionless.
Drew paced the floors of the community center, waiting for someone to tell him what they were doing to find and rescue Ben. The old guy from Glacier Rescue was studying maps, monitoring a bunch of screens and talking into his phones, but how was that going to help Ben? Nothing was happening. A few people had come and gone hours ago, but shouldn’t there have been more? There were no big search parties organized, no police officers, no medics. Their group had come down from the mountain hours ago. What were they waiting for? He knew he should have stayed up there and looked for Ben himself. Adults were so unreliable.
Wesley, Penelope, Cara and Wade had all passed out on the sofas in the reading room, but Drew couldn’t nap. He pulled out his phone and for the fifth time since he’d come down from the mountain, he watched the video he had taken on the first night of the Challenge, wondering if it would be the last video ever taken of Ben. His vision suddenly blurred.
Drew wiped his eyes and approached Lorne. “Excuse me sir, can you tell me what’s going on? Isn’t anyone going to go out to look for Ben?”
“You were in his group, son?” Lorne put one hand on Drew’s shoulder and motioned to a screen with three red dots. “We have a small search party up there now. They left about an hour or so after you came down.”
The tension in Drew’s shoulders eased from relief, until he studied the screen closely. “Those circles represent people, not teams of search parties, don’t they? Otherwise they’d be more spread apart?”
“That’s right, son.” Lorne picked up a tablet and tapped on it to refresh the weather forecast for the area.
“Three people? Only three? How are they gonna find him? You need more people out searching!” Drew’s voice was louder and all trace of the soft, polite tone he’d used at the start of the conversation was gone.
“They’re the only ones who answered the call. Most of our search and rescue volunteers are on the mountain leading other teams for the Challenge.”
“Well, I volunteer then! Geez, I could’ve been looking for him myself this whole time! Maybe I would’ve found him by now.”
“Sorry son, but we can only allow qualified volunteers to join our search. ‘Specially in this weather, and if it gets much worse, we’re going to have to call them back in. We can’t risk people getting injured if it’s not safe to be out there.”
“If it’s not safe for you guys to go out with all your resources, how safe can Ben be all by himself? Without shelter or anything? You can’t just leave him out there alone. You do know who he is, right? Benjamin Black? Of Black Mountain? I’m sure his father, Jefferson, won’t be too pleased if he learns that you didn’t do all you could to save his first-born child.”
“I am well aware of who we are dealing with, son. But, I’m sorry. There is only so much we can do. Truth is, I’m not even sure we should have sent a group up in this weather in the first place. Maybe they’ll find him before the weather turns worse. Or maybe the weather will get better. We just don’t know right now.”
“Drew!” Wesley’s eyes bulged wide open as he ran towards Drew and Lorne, a charging wire dangling from the phone he held out towards them. “Drew! Somebody took him! Ben was kidnapped! Look!”
Drew took Wesley’s phone and read the text message aloud. “‘We have Ben Black. 1 million for his safe return. Reply within 1 hour to confirm willingness to pay. No police.’ What the… Wes! When did you get this? What did your dad say?”
“I… I just got it. Lemme call him now.” The call went unanswered. Wesley started to text, but was interrupted when his phone rang. “Dad? Oh, but where’s… But… So… No…? But wh… Okay. Bye.”
Wesley turned off his phone and looked at Drew with a blank expression on his face.
“Wes?” Drew asked. “Well?”
“Dad’s got it handled, Mack says, we shouldn’t call the police.”
“But, Wes —”
“Officers are on the way. Chief Constable Joe is coming himself, too.” Lorne put his phone down and placed his hand back on Drew’s shoulder.
Ryder Conway, Sunita “Sunny” Kapoor and Fiona Fernandez surveyed the area marked “Checkpoint 4” on Map 8 from the Challenge. It was a small open area surrounded by trees, completely devoid of any signs that it had been a campsite hours earlier. The three huddled under a large tree, using it to shield them from the ferocious wind.
“So let’s head west from here,” Sunny yelled, but the storm seemed to swallow her words as soon as they left her mouth.
“What?” Ryder had a much stronger voice. Sunny pointed and Ryder shook his head.
“Too much debris,” Ryder shouted, pointing to the piles of tree limbs and branches that concealed the footprints Sam had made just an hour earlier. “Let’s head that way for a bit and see where it leads.” He nodded to a much clearer path in the trees.
The trio leaned into the wind as they climbed uphill and over a few fallen tree limbs, making their way to the top of a steep ravine.
Fiona scanned the area below, slowly making her way along the edge with Sunny following closely behind. A powerful blast of gale-force wind forced Fiona to the ground, while Sunny managed to grab hold of a tree. Fiona fell onto her side and rolled dangerously close to the edge of the ravine. A small break in the wind gave her a chance to regain her footing, but a second gust caught her off guard and she slipped over the edge onto her belly. She desperately grabbed at the ground, but the loose snow failed to hold her. As though in slow motion, she saw the ground before her slowly disappear as she slid down the slope. Fiona closed her eyes. She braced for a hard landing, every muscle in her body tensing while she held her breath. But it wasn’t the hard ground underneath her that she felt, it was a pain in her arm, like it was being torn from her shoulder. She opened her eyes and saw Sunny staring down at her. Sunny’s hands were clasped around her arm and with two powerful yanks, Fiona was up and out of the ravine. Back on her feet and on solid ground, Fiona smiled gratefully at Sunny, who nodded and smiled in return.
Fiona took a few steps away from the edge of the ravine and continued her search. She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see Sunny holding her satellite phone. The wind had drowned out the sound of its ring but Sunny had seen its light flashing.
“Lorne,” Sunny yelled.
Fiona shrugged and shook her head.
Sunny cupped her hands to the side of Fiona’s head and shouted, “It’s Lorne calling us back in.”
Fiona nodded and yelled into Sunny’s ear, “What happened?”
“Storm’s getting worse. Boy got kidnapped.”
“I don’t know any more. Let’s get out of here. We’ll find out more back at base.”
Fiona nodded again. They turned to tell Ryder, but he was no longer behind them.
Lights flashed in Chief Constable Joe Ackerman’s face as he anxiously stood at a podium sipping from a can of pop.
“Sixteen-year-old boy, Benjamin Black, was abducted while participating in the annual Alpine Survival Challenge sometime between 10pm yesterday evening and 1am this morning. Last known location is near Fool’s Bluff on Black Mountain. His family was contacted at approximately 6:45am this morning with a ransom demand.” Chief Constable Joe read from his notes in front of a small group of people, including Challenge volunteers and participants, reporters from the two local newspapers, and random people from the village who had seen the lights from the police cruisers and had come out of curiosity.
“We have no further comment at this time, as the investigation is ongoing. However, we are currently conducting interviews with individuals involved to gather more information and we are looking to speak to Samantha Shepherd. If anyone has any information on her whereabouts, please contact us immediately.”
The crowd, which had been breathlessly silent while the Chief was speaking, now erupted in a rumble of gasps and chatter. Faceless voices peppered the Chief with questions.
The Chief scowled and his eyebrows came together to form a unibrow as he addressed someone at the front of the crowd. “Is she a suspect? No… No, I cannot comment further on this case, as I’ve said. She is a person of interest and we would just like to speak to her.”
More murmurs from the crowd.
“What’s that? Yes, that is correct, her father is a detective with the Glacier Police. No, he is not involved in this case. He submitted a request for personal time and we expect his return to work tomorrow. What? He informed us that he would be out of town. He did not elaborate. Yes, we will be in contact with him shortly, I believe, but as I said, he is not involved in this case, so I don’t see how… No, no. That’s it. No more questions. That’s all for now. Thank you.”
A loud, nasally voice rose clearly above the noise from the crowd. “Isn’t it at all suspicious that both Samantha Shepherd and her father seem to be, ah, let’s say, absent? That they’re both unaccounted for just after Benjamin Black was kidnapped? Is it possible that they could be directly involved in the kidnapping?” Jordan Cunningham, lead reporter at the Glacier Times, asked.
The Chief looked at Jordan, but ignored his question and the small crowd erupted again.
Jordan whispered to his colleague, Elle MacTavish, as they rushed to a quiet corner and opened up their laptops, “Hurry up. I’ve got the title, ‘Samantha Shepherd Sought For Involvement In Benjamin Black Kidnapping’.”
Are you enjoying Fool’s Bluff? Please share this with your friends and family who would also like this story!