There was nothing left of the fingernails on Lorne’s left hand. They had been bitten down to the quick, chewed up and discarded. He was now working on the index finger of his right hand as he stared at Black Mountain out of the window of the community center.
“Take a break, Lorne.” The sound of a woman’s voice behind him gave him a start. He snapped to attention, his eyes once again focused and alert. He had been too engrossed in the darkness outside to see Fiona’s reflection in the window. She held a plate in one hand as she crossed the room and approached him. “Go sit down for a bit. At least eat this. Mario made it specially for us.”
“I’m good, Fee. Don’t you worry about me. I’m a tough old fart.” He moved away from the window and tried to look busy, finding himself rereading the alert message he had received from the rescue coordination center. Satellites had picked up Sam’s distress signal and forwarded her GPS coordinates to the message control center, who had then sent them onto the rescue coordination center.
“She’s okay. Sam knows how to handle herself out there. She taught me everything I know and I’m twice her age! We have to stay positive. It’s a good sign that she was able to send a distress signal.” Fiona’s red-rimmed eyes welled up with tears. She was thinking about Ryder, about how he didn’t ask for help, couldn’t ask for help, how he would never ask for help again.
“Y’know that little girl….” Lorne paused to collect himself, his voice cracking. “When Joyce passed away, she must have been five or six, she would come by every day to see me, make sure I was okay. She made these cards. Put them inside envelopes that would say, ‘Open when you feel sad’ or ‘Open when you need a smile’ or ‘Open when you need company.’ They had little pictures and funny captions. She did that for a full year. Pop in with a hug, ‘Here you go Uncle Lorne.’ She was such a blessing. Some days, those cards and hugs were the only things that got me out of bed. Elaine said it was all Sam’s idea.”
“Hmm.” Fiona smiled and took a moment to reflect. “Sam was probably around seven when Dottie got spayed and had to wear the cone of shame. All dogs look sad when they wear it, but Dottie? She was so miserable and she wasn’t shy about telling everyone either, with all her whimpering and whining. Well, we run into Sam and guess what she does? Fifteen minutes later, she comes running up to us with her little umbrella, saying that she didn’t want Dottie getting sprayed again because it looked like it might start raining. She said she didn’t like getting wet too much either but that Dottie needed the umbrella more.”
Lorne chuckled, but the smile disappeared from his face quickly as his gaze wandered over to the window facing Black Mountain.
“Did you contact Chief Constable Joe? Is he going to notify everyone that Sam isn’t a person of interest anymore? That she was out of reach because she was up on the mountain probably looking for Ben?” Fiona asked.
“Said they still need to talk to her. But he didn’t seem much interested in talking about the case anymore. Didn’t want to ‘fuel the fire,’ so he said.”
“What does that mean? The buzz around town is that Sam is involved in the kidnapping, which is utterly ridiculous. And did you see this new interview with the little brother in the Times? What was it?” Fiona tapped on her phone. “Oh, yeah, right. ‘Black Family Demands Jail Time for Samantha Shepherd.’ How can he not address that? Isn’t that, like, slander or something?”
“The Chief didn’t actually say that, so no, it’s not slander. And the family’s response is just their opinion.”
“But doesn’t he want to address it at least? Correct the assumptions?”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Fee.” Lorne shook his head and walked back over to the window while he bit down on his right thumbnail. “I have no idea what the Chief’s thinking. Y’know, truth is, I don’t know what anyone’s thinking. Like Ryder and Sam. Why’d they do what they did? Wander out there in the middle of this storm all by themselves, ignore the protocols, make such high-risk decisions. We just lost Elaine. Now Ryder…and if Sam doesn’t….” Lorne’s voice was wobbling again.
Still facing the window, he wiped his eyes before turning back around to face Fiona. “I know what I’m thinking though. How the heck are we going to rescue Sam in these conditions?”
Dan Shepherd was sleeping in a Vancouver motel room when he received the call from Chief Constable Joe. His voice was calm and neutral throughout the conversation: “Yes, sir, I understand,” “No, sir, I do not know,” “Thank you, sir, I appreciate that.” But he hadn’t felt calm at all.
Dan jumped out of bed and was driving home on the Sea To Sky Highway when he realized that he hadn’t formally checked out. He returned to the motel and settled his bill quickly, frustrated with himself for wasting time.
For the past few months, he had been feeling like there was a ticking time bomb attached to his life. Like there was a runaway tanker truck with a full load of gasoline behind him, but the road he was on was full of blind twists and turns with one side hugging a steep rock face and the other a straight drop to the sea. He just had to make it to the finish line. He had a long list of things to do and they had to get done before the tanker caught up to him, before he missed a corner and crashed into the mountain or plummeted over the edge. But every day, the list of things to do grew longer and the tanker was picking up speed.
Back on the highway, Dan kept both hands locked on the steering wheel, his knuckles white from his intense grip. Except to wipe the sweat from his palms onto his jeans, he didn’t move, not even to change the radio station or adjust the climate control. He drove in sweaty silence, listening to white noise and pushing the speed limit the entire way.
“Did the Glacier Times site get hacked or something? I mean, seriously, these headlines don’t even make sense. Drew, you’re going to have to read this. I can’t even. I must be allergic to stupid. I mean, what are they going to come up with next? ‘Ten Reasons Why Samantha Shepherd Should Rot in a Prison Cell for the Rest of Her Life. The Last One Will Shock You!’ or maybe ‘Samantha Shepherd Stole Sleeping Kid From His Bed. What Happens Next Will Blow Your Mind!’” Penelope rolled her eyes as she handed her phone to Drew.
“Wow. I can’t believe Wes said all this stuff to Elle MacTavish. Sam and Wes are not going to be friends after this.”
“The Times has turned into pure clickbait. Misleading headlines, one-sided stories. They must be getting a ton of clicks and raking in a lot of cash churning out this garbage. How can anyone take what they write seriously?” Penelope asked, peeking over Drew’s shoulder.
“Well, have you seen the Pique’s website? Mrs. B hasn’t posted anything about this yet. Their top story is still the one they printed last week. Photos from the snow carving contest. Can’t blame people for wanting to know about what’s going on.”
“Look at the comments under the articles though. I’d feel a lot better if everyone wasn’t jumping to the conclusion that Sam did something wrong.”
“It’s not everyone. There are people leaving positive comments about Sam and her dad too, they’re just a little buried, is all. But hey, once it’s on the Internet, it must be true, right?” Drew smiled as he zoomed in on Elle MacTavish’s photo of Wesley standing on a snowy slope, arms crossed, chest puffed out and face stewing with anger. Underneath, the caption read: “Wesley Black is fighting for better training and background criminal checks for mountain guides after his brother was kidnapped while under supervision of Samantha Shepherd, who has allegedly left Glacier Village. Wesley wonders if she could have kidnapped Ben alone or if she was working with others villagers who are also suspiciously absent? Reporters from the Glacier Times have been trying to reach Dan Shepherd, Samantha’s father, for comment, but have been unsuccessful in locating him.”
“Yeah because fake news stories never lead to any bad consequences, do they?” Penelope said, taking her phone back from Drew.
“Well, they do have a point. Where is Sam? Wesley doesn’t seem bothered at all, but until I see Ben with my own eyes.…” Drew rubbed his neck with a pained expression on his face. “I don’t know. This is all so crazy. Getting Ben back is what really matters, right? I don’t think the headlines are a big deal. What’s the worst thing that could happen from a few stories in a tiny local paper?”
“Are you sure, Lorne?” Sunny’s hands were clasped together, one thumb rubbing nervously against the other.
Lorne didn’t look up from his inspection of the main load line attached to the helicopter. “If we don’t go now, I don’t know when we’ll get another chance. Winds are finally starting to calm, but looks like there’s another system coming. We have no idea what condition Sam is in, y’know. She might not have the luxury of a few hours. If we wait this thing out and we get there too late.…” He stopped and cleared his throat, afraid his voice might betray the calm confidence he was trying to exude.
“It’s just that…if the winds do suddenly pick up…and you’re using the long line.…”
“You’re not asking me to tell you my favorite story about the Helicopter External Transport System, are you? You’ve heard it so many times, I’ll bet you could lip sync along.” Lorne looked up at Sunny and winked. “You do know who was part of the Parks Canada team that pioneered this system, right? In the ’60s! I’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive, Sunny girl. No need to worry.”
“What if I came with you, maybe the chopper could unload us over here?” Sunny pointed to a map, but Lorne didn’t bother looking. “We could carry the aerial rescue platform in, just in case. But I’ll bet we can we hike in and hike out without having to use the long line.”
“That’d take too long. Terrain could be difficult. And if we have to carry her out on a stretcher? Nope. Wouldn’t work.”
“Lorne, I should at least come with you. We’ve practiced tandem rescues. I don’t see why you have to go alone.”
“You’ve gone up already, Sunshine. If I’m going up, I need you here in charge of the command center.”
“Well, I could go up myself then. You’re always in charge here.”
Sunny let out a frustrated sigh. “You do understand how much we need you, right? You are not just the leader of the Glacier Rescue team. All of us are not just volunteers.” Her tone was now as sharp as a razor. “Would this rescue be happening, right now, with you, if it were anyone else but Sam up there?”
“Now, c’mon, Sunny girl.”
“In chess, you would never send your queen out to save a pawn.”
“But this isn’t chess, and I’m no queen, though, once, when I was a little boy, I wanted to be a princess.” Lorne smiled, hoping Sunny would soften. She didn’t. “Glacier Rescue is like a hand. A helping hand to those who need it. And every one of us are fingers, no one more important than the other. When one is broken, we all feel it, we all suffer. And we stick together until the broken one is healed.” Lorne held three fingers up together, like a Boy Scout salute.
“Okay then, a thumb is not the same as a ring finger. Would you try to tie a thumb to a broken ring finger?” Sunny tried to align her thumb with her ring finger and held her hand up awkwardly to prove her point, as if to say, “See how idiotic this is?”
“Please! That makes no sense at all,” Sunny continued, her voice now impatient. “What I am saying is that you are too valuable to us, too valuable to the community. You are taking a huge risk because you are emotionally invested. That can only lead to disaster. If it were my call, we would wait. Think about the worst case scenario. Is the life of one worth the lives of many? Fiona would never say ‘no’ to piloting the chopper, but are you sure she thinks it is a good idea to go up? We cannot risk more lives, not to mention the chopper and all the equipment that we would lose. We would be severely crippled, no chopper, no rescue team, no rescues. People could die. People will die.”
Lorne placed a reassuring hand on Sunny’s shoulder. “You’re in charge down here, Sunshine.” He turned towards Fiona in the helicopter and signaled a thumbs up.
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