Excerpt from Last Seen

In the short time it took to break winter camp and ski down to the Elkhart Trailhead, Kevin Cahill’s world shifted from normal and manageable to bizarre and totally out of his control. Like a sudden collapse of the snow in the slide of an avalanche as it takes your life down, gone and buried in minutes. One day, his biggest problem was dealing with a jealous wife, and the next, it was convincing the sheriff he hadn’t killed her.

A perfect morning, classic Wyoming winter; a robin’s-egg blue bowl of sky above endless trails of new powder that sparkled like crushed diamonds. He couldn’t think of a better way to describe the pristine scene. He was carrying a fifty-pound pack of winter camping gear on his back, but he hardly noticed the weight. He’d never felt stronger. After three days of skiing and winter camping in the backcountry, he felt like Superman, no he was Superman.

Then a sheriff from down in Pinedale was on the radio. He didn’t give a reason, only that Wyoming Backcountry Sports wanted Kevin to bring his crew down off the mountain. What the hell was going on? They’d only given him a week to scout the route he’d be using for all the upcoming winter tours. It had to be some surprise shift in the weather forecast that they couldn’t have foreseen when they started out last week.

He wanted to punch something, but knew he had to keep it together. His crew looked up to him, admired not just his physical strength, but his mental strength under pressure. If he lost it over something like this, he’d wreck his image and his reputation as a guide. Guiding put money in his pocket and food on the table. His endurance and skill in the wilderness made him who he was.  It really sucked, though. If he could, he’d stay in the mountains forever. Especially now, after what happened with Kimi the other night, he wasn’t ready to go back. He didn’t want to face what was waiting for him. It would be easier if he just had a few more days. But his luck had run out. He began breaking camp and packing up and searched for something positive to push out the disappointment and take his mind off things he didn’t want to think about.

He could tell from the way Tracy looked at him that she was happy about what happened. It hadn’t been just sympathy sex the other night, he was sure of it. Sleeping with her hadn’t been in his plan, but after what happened with Kimi, what did he have to lose? Tracy stayed close behind him as they skied down to the trailhead, the two of them leading the others.

He spotted the deputies as he came out of the trees. Their brown and gold Sweetwater County Ford sedan blocked his crew’s Suburban. They stood with arms crossed, watching as he skied out of the trail. From a distance they looked like matched pieces in a set of plastic toys, stiff and solid. Somehow, he knew they were there for him.

He crossed the snow-covered parking lot, came to a quick stop right in front of them and kicked up snow with his edges. Deputies Collins and Garcia of the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Department introduced themselves.

“Are you Kevin Cahill?” Garcia asked.

All of a sudden, he wanted to run. A brief swirl of vertigo, he staggered, almost went over, planted his poles, steady again on the skis. The taste of bile at the back of his throat; he wondered about hypothermia.

“The one and only,” he quipped and wondered why he felt the need to joke with them.

He stepped out of his skis and dusted the powder off the bottom. Exhaustion made him

ache to drop his pack right there in the snow. He didn’t want them to see his weakness. After the exertion of skiing, his body was cooling down; he was sweating and felt chilled to the bone. The deputies didn’t seem to notice his distress. They stood on either side of him, their large bodies crowding him, isolating him, making a kind of privacy screen.

Then Tracy was right beside him, asking, “What’s wrong? What is it, officers?”

It should have been him doing the asking, but he didn’t know what to say. He felt like a kid in trouble, afraid to say anything, afraid to make things worse for himself.

“This is a police matter, miss. We need to speak to Mr. Cahill in private,” Garcia said.

Tracy didn’t move. That’s what he liked about the girl. She wasn’t easily intimidated. The officer stared her down, gave her a minute, and then, when she didn’t move, he said, “I’m going to need you to join the others, miss. This doesn’t concern you.”

Though clearly dismissed, Tracy stayed put, didn’t move a muscle. She stood right by his side, the weight of her pack pulling her shoulders back, pushing her breasts forward. Even in her down jacket, she was voluptuous, her amazing tits, right there in his face. It was surreal how he could be thinking about her body that way, in this situation, with the deputies standing right there and taking it all in.

“Kevin?” she asked, taking her time saying his name, a sly, sexy girl. Her southern-drawl and all her southern ways could make him feel homesick at times.

“It’s okay. I’ll catch up with you later.”

“Yeah, it’s okay,” the other officer, Collins, mimicked.

“Move along, miss.” Garcia said.

He waved his hand at her as if directing traffic and motioned for her to leave them,

and shot a look at Collins that signaled he was in charge.

She stood for a moment longer, a confident young woman not used to being told what to do. Kevin saw it register finally that something big was happening. She could leave and he was stuck with the deputies.

Tracy pouted and shook her hair out from her ski hat. Then she skied away, her blonde curls bouncing on her back, off to join the rest of the crew. They worked in silence, packing the Suburban, doing a good job of ignoring what was happening with Kevin and the deputies.

“Sorry to tell you this, Mr. Cahill. Your wife’s been reported missing. Do you know anything about her disappearance?” It was Garcia who again took the lead.

“How long has she been gone this time?”

The two deputies eyed each other silently, looking surprised that this had happened before. Too many times, he thought.

Then Garcia looked straight at him and said, “She was reported missing this morning. It could be three days since she’s been seen.”

“Have you seen her since Friday?” Collins added.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. Hold on here. My wife’s been gone for three days? That can’t be.”

“Kimi Benally, the reporter at the Rocket Miner?” Collins confirmed. “A co-worker says she didn’t show for work today. She hasn’t been in the office since late last week.”

Finally, Kevin let the pack drop off his back. He felt light-headed again and took a deep breathe to get some blood to his head.

Across the parking lot Tracy was working with the rest of the crew busy packing up.

Then she turned to him and said, “Kevin, we’re ready to take off. Are you coming?”

He made a move to reach for his pack.

“You’re riding with us,” Collins informed him.

“We’re keeping this quiet for the moment,” Garcia added. “We’d appreciate your cooperation with that.”

Kevin looked down at his skis. “Hold on while I get rid of this gear,” he said, hoisting the pack on his back.

He skied over to Tracy, handed her his ski gear and changed his boots. She gave him a long look before getting into the driver’s side of the Suburban, taking the lead because he couldn’t. The door slammed with a final, angry sound. Kevin watched as she eased the vehicle slowly out of the parking lot and everything familiar rolled away.

He was in the back seat of the cruiser. A wire safety screen separated him from the deputies in front made him feel dangerous. They rode in silence out of the forest. He studied them from behind. Both of them were clean-shaven with short buzzed hair showing under the black sheriff’s hats. They looked like kids in costume: overdressed and ridiculous, playing at cops and robbers, with him as the bad guy! The whole thing felt like make-believe.

Better make some calls, he thought, they’d expect him to do that. His phone showed no service, they were still too far from town.  He would call Kimi’s brother when he picked up a signal.

They drove through winter desert pocked with sagebrush and bordered by snow fences to keep the wild life from the road. He searched the horizon for wandering mule deer, whose home they were disturbing. The sun was still with them, but it didn’t matter now. His day on the mountain was ruined. He should have expected something like this would happen.

The deputies had come for him and were hauling him back to civilization. The truth was he hated cities, even grubby cities like Rock Springs. Mostly, it was people and their needs that bothered him, made him feel confined and limited. He wondered, not for the first time, why he got married.

Then he spotted a herd of pronghorn deer in the distance, antlers held high, and a sense of rootless longing rose in him. Outside the tinted windows the bare, sculpted planet rushed by, just out of his reach.