June, present day. Durango, Colorado.
“That motherfucker,” Eliza Santos muttered aloud as she coasted into her conspicuously half-empty driveway on her one-speed Hathaway cruiser bike. “He’s still not back.”
The motherfucker, in this particular instance, was her husband, Peter Simons. And he was a motherfucker because he was now officially twenty-four hours overdue from what was supposed to be a few days of alone-time in Utah’s canyon country. Standing in the driveway, sweat dripping down the side of her face, Santos habitually reached up to worry her long braid, only to find it, like her husband, missing. She had cut her long, black hair a week earlier, and now wore a disheveled pixie cut to which she was still unaccustomed. Self-consciously, she mussed her hair with her hand, and looked up and down the street to make sure she hadn’t missed Peter’s old and rundown truck. Maybe he’d parked in front of that new house going up, the fancy one a few houses away, just to piss the owners off.
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No truck. Just a tidy row of the mid-century box-houses with Subarus in the driveway, punctured by that million-dollar wall of glass, gleaming in the afternoon sun, soaking up the early June heat like a solar oven. Why are the wealthy so stupid, she wondered, even as she asked why it was that a black, shiny Cadillac Escalade was sitting in front of the Halls’ house, its windows opaque with tint. The Halls weren’t exactly Cadillac folks, nor did the gargantuan vehicle fit here in Tupperware Flats, a sort of suburb to historic Durango, Colorado — if a town of fifteen-thousand could have suburbs.
If someone happened to be sitting behind the mirrored windshield of the Escalade, and happened to be watching Eliza Santos, they would have seen, even from that distance, her jaw muscles flex as she clenched her teeth. The observer might have seen it as a sign of concern. In fact, Eliza wasn’t all that worried about Peter. He’d done this sort of thing before, and in all likelihood was just wandering around in some canyon, oblivious to the fact that his real life was waiting for him. After all, Peter was Peter, a man for whom time and deadlines and commitments were mere abstractions. He would come back, walk into the front door, and raise his hand in greeting as if nothing were wrong.
Mostly she was frustrated and angry that he would be so selfish, and, even worse, that she had to deal with this shit, adding yet another item to her overloaded plate. She already had a precocious, teenaged daughter with whom to contend. The illustrious city council — composed of a land developer, a personal fitness trainer, and three real estate agents, two of whom were former professional athletes — had voted the previous night to cut the public library’s budget and put the money saved into a new mountain bike park. Eliza was the director of the library, meaning she would have to hand out pink slips, decide which books not to buy, and walk around and shut off lights so as to save on the electricity bills. Meanwhile her aging parents, who still lived in her hometown of Santa Fe, were a mess: Her mother seemed to be slipping into a haze of dementia while her father drank himself into a manufactured dementia of his own, even as he made the moves on her mother’s caretakers.
Now she had a missing husband, and would have to decide whether to call out a search party. If she did, and Peter was just being Peter, then she’d end up looking stupid and probably would have to pay the tab for the unnecessary search. If she didn’t, and Peter turned up dead, then she’d have some explaining to do to her daughter.
She flipped the kickstand on the bike, left it out in the driveway, and walked inside, relieved to be out of the heat. She tried calling Peter again. It went straight to voicemail. She walked into the bedroom and turned on the swamp cooler and changed into shorts and a t-shirt. She went to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, pulled out the bottle of white wine, poured herself a glass, gulped half of it down, refilled, and headed back into the living room where she sat down on the couch and found the number for the San Juan County, Utah, sheriff’s office, which was already programmed into her phone for this very reason. She knew herself well enough to know that if she didn’t call it would nag at her like a pebble in a shoe, slowly wearing its way under her skin.
She pushed the little green “call” icon, anachronistically shaped like an old-school telephone handset. Melanie Shumway, dispatcher and gossip-hound, answered after less than one ring. And so, Santos officially began missing Peter, a forty seven-year-old artist who works in a variety of media, at 4:34 p.m. on Wednesday, June 13, exactly one week prior to the Summer Solstice, and two days after a fast-moving fire burned through drought-infested forests of the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico before engulfing a facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratories. When the fire was extinguished, several pounds of sensitive, “strategic material” had gone missing, just like Peter. These coincidences may or may not be consequential.
“Ummm, hi, I’m calling because, well, my husband’s gone. Gone missing, I mean.”
“Gone missing, eh? Have you ever considered how stupid that term is? I mean, you can go shopping. You can go hiking. But can you really go missing? What does that even mean, anyway?”
“I don’t understand … You see, he was supposed to be back yesterday afternoon and he … he’s still out there somewhere?”
“Okay, honey, I’m just trying to make conversation. Where was he last seen?”
“I don’t really know,” Eliza said, wincing at Shumway’s use of the passive voice. “I last saw him on Friday around noon before he left. His name’s Peter. Peter Simons. He went hiking over there somewhere and he hasn’t come back. I just wanted to know if …”
“If we’ve pulled a rotten carcass out of a canyon?”
“What?! I …”
“I’m kidding!” A sharp cackle burst from the phone’s speaker. “Of course we didn’t. But we did find his truck. Just yesterday Deputy Lyman slapped an abandoned vehicle ticket on an eighty-seven Toyota four-by-four pickup. It was sitting in Parley Redd’s Mercantile parking lot for at least two days. That’s illegal, you know? It’s like leaving your luggage in the airport. A big no-no. His truck’s red, right? With one of them 'KEEP UTAH WILD' bumper stickers on there?”
“Yeah, that’s his truck, alright.” Eliza sighed. She had repeatedly pleaded with Peter to take that damned sticker off his truck, warned him of the dangers of wearing his politics on his sleeve or, for that matter, the bumper of his car, particularly in Utah.
“Would you like to file a missing person’s report?”
“No, no, not yet. Thank you,” she said, already regretting the phone call. “Maybe you could just keep an eye out?”
“You bet. And don’t worry, I’m sure he’s okay.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. If he were dead, someone would have smelled him by now.”
Before Eliza could respond her phone beeped, signaling that the call had ended. She thought about calling back, about making some sort of formal complaint about the woman’s brusqueness, but didn’t know what it would accomplish. Better to stay on Shumway’s good side. In a small town people like her held an inordinate amount of power.
Besides, the dispatcher had asked a good question: Where was Peter last seen? She sat back, took another swig of wine, and logged into her and Peter’s bank account. He had used his credit card three times on the previous Friday, first at the Durango post office, where he spent five bucks, apparently to buy stamps or send a package, then at the Walgreens pharmacy, where he spent three-hundred dollars for God-knows-what, and then at the Sonic Drive-in on South Broadway in Cortez, Colorado. Walgreens would not give out any information about its pharmacy customers. Not knowing what else to do, Santos called Sonic, and spoke to one disembodied voice after another, trying to find the person who waited on Peter so she could glean from them a fragment of information about her husband’s whereabouts or state of mind. She tried to picture the face behind each voice — this one a mascara-smeared high schooler who lived with her mom in a ragged hotel room, this one a middle-aged man who had worked in the mines or the oil patch or the bean fields and this is what it has come to, damnit.
Finally, Lindey Hurley, a seventeen-year-old carhop got on the phone. Yep, she remembered Peter, could never forget the guy who had left a five-dollar tip and fit the description of Simons — tall, slow jerky mannerisms, as if he were in one of those stop-motion animations, not bad-looking for an old guy, driving a beat-up, rice-burner truck with a Replacements sticker on the cab’s back window. Hurley loved the Replacements.
Santos sputtered in surprise a little at that, and had she not been engaged in such an important query, might have counseled the young woman on her music selection — not that there was anything wrong with the Replacements, but she might consider adding a few more sisterly songwriters to her playlist. She also might have pleaded with her to stay away from boys until she got to college, to avoid letting some testosterone-addled hottie with a nice smile derail her dreams. “So, was he in a hurry? Did he have anyone with him? Was he distraught?”
“He ordered a banana shake and a Sonic Boom,” Hurley answered. As if that were everything.
At precisely the moment that Hurley said, “boom,” someone knocked loudly on the front door. Eliza thanked Lindey, hung up the phone, and unconsciously tugged at the hem of her shorts in a futile attempt to get them to cover a little bit more of her thigh. She opened the door to find a man and a woman standing on the little porch, both wearing sunglasses and bluetooth earpieces, tactical pants, and black jackets with deep orange trim, despite the stifling heat. Santos shuddered involuntarily, perhaps because the two uncannily resembled wasps, which could not be a good thing. They held up ID badges, and the woman, her dark hair pulled tightly back into a ponytail, said they were agents from Clearwater Incorporated, working under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, and they needed to ask her a few questions about her husband, Peter.
Eliza took a step back into the cool of her home, as much out of shock as to escape the cologne one or both of the agents were wearing. She did not invite them inside.
The woman did all of the talking, asking if Eliza knew Peter’s whereabouts, asked if she had noticed anything unusual in his behavior lately, or if he had been associating with anyone new or suspicious. “What was he looking for in Utah?”
“Looking for? Nothing.” She shivered, despite the heat. “He’s an artist. Now unless you have a warrant or something I’d like you to leave now.”
Eliza slammed the door and locked it, then watched the two wasps walk up the street to the black Escalade parked in front of the Halls’ house. She noticed the shadows that each of them cast, and then looked up to the sky and the sun that hung high in the sky. She looked at the calendar on her phone. Summer Solstice was only a week away. This realization brought a wave of worry. She couldn’t handle this alone. She needed help. And she could think of just one person who might be able to offer it. But before she called, she needed to go out and buy another bottle of wine.