The three men came stumbling into town shortly after ten a.m., babbling of dark shapes and eerie screams and their missing buddy Scott and other missing buddy Tim. Yesterday, the five of them had headed into the woods for a bachelor party weekend. All friends since college, four of them wouldn’t have minded a golf weekend or quality time at a casino/resort. But for future groom Tim, the woods were his happy place, so into the mountains they’d gone. Fully equipped, packs, tents, sleeping bags, , cans of beans and franks, and yeah, as much beer and Maker’s Mark as five fit young men could carry. Which was to say, a lot. But they weren’t total idiots. As an experienced backcountry hiker, Tim knew his shit and oversaw their packing himself.
Until the middle of the night. Noises. Screams. A disturbance. Realizing Scott was no longer in his tent. Tim setting off to get help. Except now he was gone, too.
“Bear, bear, bear,” first guy moaned.
“Mountain lion!” second guy insisted.
Third guy vomitted.
Maybe, maybe not, the locals thought.
The first eight hours of the search turned up Scott, wandering blindly along the rocky banks of the river. Still clad in his long underwear, face covered in scratches, fingernails caked with dirt. Clearly disoriented and shell-shocked. And with no idea of what had happened to him, or his buddy Tim.
Search efforts slowed, grew more methodical, no longer hoping for an easy victory, but now settling in to scour the wildnerness foot by foot, trail by trail, grid by grid. Choppers scanned with infrared. Air scenting dogs tracked areas of interest. Couple of psychics called in with hot tips, most involving flowing rivers or dark caves.
Until twenty three long, arduous, exhausting days later, as the temperatures plummeted and snow blanketed the upper elevations…
The searchers faded back to their real lives. The canine teams went home. The choppers were redirected to new missions. And only family and friends remained.
Martin O’Day fought the good fight the longest. He searched for his son. Then he searched for signs of his son. And then, he searched for his son’s body.
As seasons turned into years and Timothy O’Day became one more missing hiker, vanished without a trace.
This is where I come in. My name is Frankie Elkin and finding missing people is what I do. When the police have given up, with the public no longer remembers, when the media has never bothered to care, I start looking. For no money, no recognition, and most of the time, no help. Why do I what I do? If only I knew.
The town of Ramsey, Wyoming, looks like an Old West movie set transported to the dusty foothills of very real mountains. The picturesque Main Street is lined on both sides by wooden storefronts whose jutting rooflines appear like puzzle pieces against the deep-blue sky. I spot a yellow-painted general store nestled shoulder to shoulder with a deep-green five-and-dime and a faded red saloon. Coffee shop, feed store, touristy T-shirt depot, leather goods, and of course a storefront advertising all things cowboy.
On a bright, sunny August afternoon, the sidewalks are jammed with people. Some clearly tourists, families in shorts and flip-flops. Some probably locals, given their denim and cowboy boots. Mostly all white, many strolling hand in hand, smiling and carefree.
I feel as self-conscious here as I do in a Haitian community in Boston or a predominantly Black housing project in Memphis. These people with their shiny lives and fashion-forward clothes and FOMO vacations . . . I don’t know how to identify with them.
I wonder sometimes if there’s anyplace that would feel like home to me. I started out playing the outsider. Now I simply am one.
I’ve reached the far edge of town, where the pretty buildings end and the more commercial structures begin. A squat budget motel. A huge outdoor gear and apparel shop. And across from the motel, a diner. The diner, I realize. Where Tim O’Day’s groomsmen arrived that first morning five years ago, babbling about bears and mountain lions and things that go bump in the night.
No time for hesitating. I head through the doors.
The diner smells of coffee, bacon grease, and grilled hamburgers. Immediately my stomach growls. I had a stale Danish for breakfast, a chocolate bar for lunch. I could use food. As well as hiking gear, a night’s lodging, and a fountain of youth.
It’s nearly three p.m. now. According to the sign, that’s fifteen minutes before closing, which would explain the nearly empty interior and the lone white-aproned fry cook scraping at the griddle.
At the rear of the diner, however, I spy a group of eight people sprawled across two booths, deep in conversation over an open map, with a collection of dirty lunch plates pushed to the side. Martin O’Day and his assembled search party. Has to be. They’re all outfitted in serious outdoor wear, scuffed hiking boots, cargo pants, and flannel. On first glance they look rugged, healthy, and ready to go.
I glance down at my decidedly non-mountaineering ensemble of tennis shoes, faded jeans, and a threadbare T-shirt. At least I’m covered in a film of travel dust and sweat. It gives me an air of authenticity as I roll my suitcase toward the group.
The man sitting in the middle is doing most of the talking. He looks to be mid-fifties, with the whip- lean build of a person always on the move. Across from him sits an older gentleman with steelgray hair and equally weathered features. A bushy-bearded redheaded male and a dark-haired female are to their left, four younger men to the right. Up close, I spy a ninth member of the party: a yellow Lab mix wearing a bright orange scarf, sprawled under the table, head on paws.
The dog looks up at my approach. Thumps its tail.
I have a sense of déjà vu. Three years ago, different woods: a missing six-year-old boy who’d been playing tag with his eight-year-old brother around their campsite before he disappeared. Me, tramping through those woods with fellow volunteers day after day. Still searching, weeks later, long after all hope of recovering the child alive was gone. Because having started the hunt, we couldn’t give it up. We had to seek. We had to find.
A family has to know.
I remember the mom’s scream when news of the discovery reached her. I remember the father, a guy in his twenties, face ashen, voice thick as he shook the hands of all the volunteers and thanked us for bringing his little boy home. As if anyone could be grateful to have their child back for a proper burial. And yet, you can be. You absolutely can be.
Why do I do what I do? Searching for the missing long after hope is lost. Town to town. Heartbreak to heartbreak.
For me, the question isn’t why have I dedicated my life to this. The question is why hasn’t everyone. So many of our children, who deserve to come home. Loved ones who need to know what happened to their family member. Communities forever haunted by what might have happened paired with what could’ve been.
I know who I am. I know why I do what I do. It’s the rest of the world that’s confusing to me.
Now I approach. The man leading the discussion finally looks up. He has hazel eyes to go with his thinning dark hair.
“Martin O’Day?” I ask, plopping down on the closest counter stool. This is it. I am both excited and nervous. Determined and fearful. It’s always like this.
I stick out my hand. “My name is Frankie Elkin,” I state. “I specialize in working missing persons cold cases. And I’d like to help to bring your son home.”
No one in the group speaks right away. Martin O’Day, the clear leader, glances at my travel garb, rolly luggage. He scowls.
“I’m not taking questions at this time,” he says.
“I’m not a reporter.”
“I’m still not taking questions.”
The older man with the cap of thick silver hair has twisted around to regard me. Gotta be Nemeth, the legendary local guide. He gives me an assessing glance.
“We’re good,” he says.
I notice the four younger men remain disconnected from the entire exchange—present but distant. They must be the bachelor party buddies, given the palpable weight of their collective guilt. That left the dog handler and the massive, redbearded male for me to sort out.
I peg Bushy Beard as the North American Sasquatch hunter, though I’m cheating a little. Add body hair, and Bushy Beard could be the Sasquatch. An interesting example of owners matching their pets.
So this is the dream team. An experienced local, a grieving father, four guilt-stricken friends, a search-dog handler, and a Bigfoot hunter. Interesting combination.
“I have experience in woodland searches,” I volunteer now.
“No, thank you.” Martin O’Day returns his focus to the map, tapping the tabletop pointedly. Just like that, I’ve been dismissed. Not the first time. I’m an unknown variable. People don’t care for unknown variables.
Want to know a trick for dealing with unfriendly alphas such as Martin O’Day? Don’t deal with them. Ignore them completely. Ultimate power play.
“You’re from the North American Bigfoot Society,” I address Bushy Beard.
“Bob,” he provides cheerfully, ignoring Martin O’Day’s warning grumble.
It clicks then, what I’d been trying to remember earlier: “Your organization has the most complete picture of missing persons on national public lands,” I burst out. “You guys know more about what’s going on in the woods than even the authorities do.”
I’m not making this up. If your loved one goes missing in the wilderness, the best data on potentially related cases comes from Bigfoot hunters, not the federal government. The world works in mysterious ways.
Then the second piece of the puzzle falls into place.
“Hang on. You’re BFBob, aren’t you? In the missing persons forums. Bigfoot Bob. You’re working on the North American Project, mapping all the disappearances in this hemisphere. So nice to meet you!”
I rise to standing as Bigfoot Bob’s eyes widen in recognition.
“Wait. Frankie Elkin? As in FElkinFinds?”
I nod vigorously, pleased to meet a fellow amateur searcher in person.
“We need to get back to work,” Martin interjects sharply.
“Just a sec, Marty.” Bob turns to the team leader. “Frankie here is the real deal. We know each other from online. She doesn’t just work cold cases; she solves them. Like dozens of them.”
Closer to sixteen, but who am I to argue?
Martin doesn’t seem to know what to make of that statement. He has his plan, probably months in the making. Viewing it as a series of steps and logistics, versus a mission to bring home his son’s body, is how he’s getting the job done. Now here I am, messing with his tenuous hold on sanity.
I understand. All of my missions start with this moment—coming out of nowhere, ripping the Band-Aid off a family’s wound and hoping it doesn’t lead to arterial spray.
At the other end of the table, Tim’s college friends continue to ignore the interaction, which I find fascinating. They are a group within the group. A separate pod of agitation and grief. One of them, a pale blond, is downing copious amounts of coffee, his hand trembling so hard he can barely bring the mug to his mouth. The friend closest to him whispers something in the guy’s ear. “Easy, now,” would be my guess.
“You have search and rescue experience?” Nemeth speaks up for the first time. His tone is doubtful as he takes in my appearance. I don’t blame him.
“I’ve assisted with line searches. And I’ve worked with dog teams.” Daisy has returned to her place under the table, leaning her square head against her handler’s knees and sighing blissfully as her human scratches her neck.
“Got a pack? Camping gear?” Nemeth gestures to my luggage. “This is a backcountry expedition. You need to be experienced, know what you’re doing.”
“I can rent equipment.” Assuming it doesn’t cost more than a hundred and twelve bucks.
“Why?” Martin this time. He sounds less belligerent, more tired. “We don’t know you. You’re clearly not prepared. We don’t have time for this. We’re headed out first thing tomorrow.”
“I’m here to help,” I repeat. “I have experience. I’m good at what I do.”
“She’s good at what she does,” Bob repeats.
“Sorry.” Nemeth this time, clearly not convinced of my bona fides. “Gotta have permission for these kinds of expeditions, and our permit only covers eight.”
“You’ll still be a party of eight,” I say.
Martin looks around. “There’s eight here, which makes you number nine.”
“He’s not going to make it.” I jerk my head toward the shaky blond.
“Josh,” one of the bachelor buddies exclaims sharply, as Josh’s hand jerks violently and dumps coffee on the table.
Three men, leaping up as hot brew hits their laps.
“What’s wrong? Man, you’re burning up!”
Josh remains sitting, staring at the spilled coffee as if he can’t get it to compute. His face is flushed, covered in sweat. His whole body is trembling.
“He’s sick,” one of his friends says. “I think he has the flu.”
“He doesn’t have the flu.” I don’t have to be a recovering alcoholic to recognize the DTs.
Martin sighs heavily, exchanges a look with Nemeth. So they both knew about Josh’s drinking. Which he must have recently sworn off in order to assist with the final attempt to bring his friend home.
Except Josh hadn’t been drinking a little heavily before this. By the looks of things, he’d been a hard-core drunk, now entering the first stage of detox.
“I can help,” I repeat to Marty. “I can use Josh’s gear. I won’t slow you down. I promise.”
“Shit!” Fresh exclamation as Josh now slumps to the side, then slowly slides onto the floor.
Martin doesn’t say a word. Just closes his eyes.
Nemeth does the honors. He turns toward me, “Guess you’re in. Goddammit.”
From ONE STEP TOO FAR by Lisa Gardner. Copyright ©2022 by Lisa Gardner. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Dutton Books.