One Step Too Far

A Novel

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Hardcover

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Hardcover

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From #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Gardner, a chilling thriller about a young man gone missing in the wilderness of Wyoming . . . and the secrets uncovered by the desperate effort to find him
 
Timothy O’Day knew the woods. Yet when he disappeared on the first night of a bachelor party camping trip with his best friends in the world, he didn’t leave a trace. What he did leave behind were two heartbroken parents, a crew of guilt-ridden groomsmen, and a pile of clues that don’t add up.
 
Frankie Elkin doesn’t know the woods, but she knows how to find people. So when she reads that Timothy’s father is organizing one last search, she heads to Wyoming. Despite the rescue team’s reluctance, she joins them. But as they hike into the mountains, it becomes clear that there’s something dangerous at work in the woods . . . or someone who is willing to do anything to stop them from going any farther.
 
Running out of time and up against the worst man and nature have to offer, Frankie and the search party will discover what evil awaits those who go one step too far . . .

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The first three men came stumbling into town shortly after ten a.m., babbling of dark shapes and eerie screams and their missing buddy Scott and their other buddy Tim, who set out from their campsite before dawn to get help.

"Bear, bear, bear," first guy moaned.

"Mountain lion!" second guy insisted.

Third guy vomited.

Maybe, maybe not, Marge Santi thought as she sidestepped the spew of liquid. Marge situated the young men in a corner booth of her diner, then got on the phone and summoned Nemeth. To be polite, Marge also contacted Sheriff Jim Kelley, likeable guy, respected by the locals, but an officer with a whole county to tend and the drive to prove it. For immediate action, Nemeth it was.

Nemeth, former Shoshone National Forest district ranger, now local guide, knew what he was doing. First, he plied the three men with coffee. To judge by the rank odor of fear and booze leaking out of their pores, they didn't need anything else. Two cups later, he had most of the story.

Five guys set out into the woods for a bachelor party weekend. All friends since college, all with some experience camping, though the trio agreed future groom Tim was The Man. Had been backcountry hiking with his father since he was six. He was the reason they were camping. The other four wouldn't have minded a golf weekend or quality time at a casino/resort. But for Tim, the woods were his happy place, so into the mountains they'd gone. Fully equipped, packs, tents, sleeping bags, two-burner propane camp stove, 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. Again, Tim knew his shit and oversaw their packing himself.

They'd hiked in seven miles yesterday, looking for the perfect camping spot in one of the deep canyons, near a broad river. Once they found it, they unloaded packs, pitched tents, and popped open the first six-pack, leaving the other four to chill in the ice-cold water.

Dusk came fast this time of year. But all was good. They built up a fire, roasted hot dogs, and ate baked beans straight out of the can. Many fart jokes ensued.

More beer, followed by whiskey chasers. How much booze can five young healthy men drink? Plenty. But no place to be, no cars to drive, no nagging cell phones to answer given the lack of reception.

Just them and the starlit sky. They killed off the first bottle of Maker's Mark, started in on the second. Tim sat next to the fire and scratched away on a piece of paper. Working on his wedding vows, writing a letter to his beloved? They teased, but he refused to fess up.

Hour grew late. How late, no one knew and it hardly mattered. They finally turned in for the night, two men each in two tents, Tim, the future groom, in a single shell all by himself. One of his last nights on earth sleeping alone. Should enjoy it while he could, they teased.

Then . . .

A sharp keening wail. Crashing in the trees around them.

"Grizzly," Neil said now, sitting in the diner.

"Mountain lion," Josh insisted.

Miggy, short for Miguel, crawled out of the booth and vomited some more.

Maybe, maybe not, Nemeth thought. Marge got a mop.

At the camp, the men had burst from their tents, flashlights bobbing, nerves strung tight, trying to pinpoint the source of the disturbance. Build up the fire, Tim demanded. Make noise of their own. Double-check the food stash they'd strung up in the trees away from their campsite.

Which is why it took a few minutes, maybe as long as five or ten, before they realized their party of five had become four. Where the hell was Scott?

Miggy had been sharing his tent and Miggy had no idea.

"No . . . fucking idea," Miggy clarified for Nemeth, in between bouts of dry heaving.

Tim, future groom, got serious. Scott could've wandered off to pee. Scott could've just plain wandered off, drunk and disoriented. But given the cold temps, dangerous terrain, and carnivorous local wildlife, they needed to find him.

Arranging their group into two pairs, Tim directed the first duo to start searching north of the campfire, while the other would cover the woods to the south. Whoever found Scott first would blow their emergency signal whistle.

Except they didn't find him. Up and down the water, bushwhacking deeper and deeper into the forest. No Scott. But they did find trampled brush. Broken tree limbs. Possibly blood.

"Grizzly bear," Neil moaned.

"Mountain lion," Josh ventured.

"Fuck me," Miggy whispered.

That, Nemeth agreed with.

Four a.m., the fall air brutally crisp, the clear night relentlessly dark, Tim made the decision: They needed help, and given the total lack of cell reception, hiking back out was the only way to get it. As the most experienced—and sober—member of their party, he grabbed his pack, clicked on his trusty headlamp, and set out for civilization.

Neil, Josh, and Miggy huddled around the fire for another three hours, pounding water and working themselves into a terrified frenzy. First glimpse of daylight, they refilled their canteens and hit the trail. Left everything behind. Tents, sleeping bags, food. Young men, fit and now semi-sober, they were on a mission to get the hell out of there as fast as humanly possible.

Still tough going. They half ran, half stumbled their way up and down steep terrain, clambering over boulders, careening through brush, splashing across streams. Till they came to the trailhead and their rented ATVs. All five of them. Shouldn't there be only four?

Which is when they started to get worried about Tim.

ATVs to town. Town to diner. And now . . . help. Nemeth. Sheriff. Cavalry. Hunters with big guns. Any kind of assistance, all kinds of assistance. Help.

Nemeth unfolded a topographical map, had the men walk him through their journey. They knew their initial path, which, like a lot of backcountry trails, started out marked before hitting rugged, less traversed terrain. Definitely not for the faint of heart. But the men could guess where along the river they'd camped. From there, Nemeth ran his finger along various geological features, thinking, thinking, thinking. Marge worked the phone, brewed more coffee.

Being a mountain town, they had a local team of fifteen volunteer search and rescuers. Given the circumstances, however, this would be all hands on deck. Neighbors contacted neighbors, people started pouring in, and Nemeth did what he did best: organized the efforts.

First up, hasty team. He wanted his best searchers dispersed along key perimeter areas encircling the PLS—point last seen—of their two missing hikers. Taking into account the average distance a person could travel an hour in that terrain, Nemeth drew a massive ring around the site, identifying their prime search area. Hasty teams would hike, ATV, or horseback into various points along this ring, conducting a down-and-dirty search of the trail and surrounding areas as they swept toward the center. They'd look for the men, but also look for signs of human passage, which might provide additional data on where Tim the experienced hiker and Scott the drunk buddy could've gone.

Ramsey, a town of four thousand situated at the edge of the Popo Agie Wilderness, was filled with experienced outsdoorspeople. The mountains were both a lifestyle and a professional calling. Nemeth was a veteran general working with expert foot soldiers.

Which made it very hard for the family to accept what happened next. The first eight hours of the search, when Scott turned up 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.

"Grizzly," Neil whispered.

"Mountain lion," Josh repeated.

"Shit . . ." Miggy moaned.

Even sobered up, Scott couldn't provide any details about where he'd been or what he'd done. He remembered drinking with his buddies around the campfire and teasing Tim for working on his wedding vows. Scott went to bed and . . . Daylight. Cold. So cold. Wandering in nothing but his stocking feet, till he found his way back to the river and followed it. Eventually, people appeared and a shrill whistle blew and now he was here and hey, where was Tim, anyway?

Timothy O'Day. Thirty-three years old, first member of his family to go to college, graduating from Oregon State University with a degree in mechanical engineering. Described by his family and friends as a regular MacGyver. Engaged to be married to Latisha Gibbons, whom he'd met three years ago through his college buddy Neil. Latisha hailed from Atlanta, worked in marketing, and spent her weekends in a state of perpetual motion, hiking, biking, skiing, every bit as crazy as her future husband.

Everyone said they looked beautiful together. The ultimate, modern-day L.L.Bean couple. They'd buy a house, adopt a Lab, and produce 2.2 gorgeous children to chase along trails, down mountains, across streams.

Theirs was to be a wonderful, magnificent life lived out loud.

Until hours stretched into days stretched into weeks.

Tim's parents arrived on-site. His father, Martin, driving from Oregon to Wyoming with his mountaineering equipment piled in the back. Marty was a lean, nut-brown professional carpenter and experienced outdoorsman ready to take up the charge. In contrast, Tim's mother, Patrice, appeared nearly translucent. Cancer survivor, the locals learned. Fifteen years ago, multiple bouts, barely made it.

Marge made it her mission to serve the woman coffee aboveboard and administer a little medicinal assistance on the down low.

Martin conferred with Nemeth and Sheriff Kelley, who'd taken charge of the search efforts. In the beginning, Martin would nod, approve, express his gratitude. By day five, he questioned and stewed. Day seven he headed into the woods himself, snarling under his breath when both Nemeth and Sheriff Kelley tried to hold him back.

The hasty teams stopped being hasty. Search efforts slowed, grew more methodical, no longer hoping for an easy victory, but now settling in to scour the wilderness 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.

More volunteers showed up. The National Guard arrived to assist. 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 had a lifetime of experience and the advantage of being the one who'd trained his son. He headed back into the mountains, expedition after expedition, while Patrice held press conferences with her future daughter-in-law by her side. Twin advertisements for grief and desperation. The college friends, Neil, Josh, Miggy, and Scott, did their best to assist while having to accommodate the demands of jobs, family, obligations of their own.

Martin O'Day searched for his son. Then he searched for signs of his son. And then he searched for his son's body.

"Grizzly bear," Neil whispered.

"Mountain lion," Josh argued.

"Goddammit," Miggy said.

As for the real answer, the woods never said. Seasons turned into years and Timothy O'Day became one more missing hiker, vanished without a trace.


Here are things most folks don't know: At least sixteen hundred people, if not many more times that number, remain missing on national public lands. Hikers, day-trippers, children on family camping trips. One moment they were with us, the next they're gone.

There's no national database to track such cases. No centralized training for search and rescue or, in many cases, even clear jurisdictional lines to identify who's in charge of such operations. There's also little in the way of designated funding. A large-scale search effort can cost upwards of three hundred thousand dollars a day. For many county sheriffs, that's their annual budget.

Meaning when the volunteers go away, so do rescue efforts. Leaving behind a family with little hope and no closure. Most will continue on their own for as long as they can. Some, such as Martin O'Day, continue the hunt every year, assisted by friends, funded by online campaigns, and advised by various experts.

According to the article I'm reading in a small, local paper, Martin's been at it for five years. This August will be his final attempt. His wife, Patrice, is now dying from the same cancer that tried to kill her before. She wants to see her son one last time. She wants her body to be buried next to his.

I sit in a diner not so dissimilar to the one Tim O'Day's hiking buddies must've rushed into the morning after. I've spent the past twelve hours on a bus and am now catching my breath, somewhere west of Cheyenne and south of Jackson, Wyoming. I don't particularly know, and I'm enjoying a sense of freedom—life on the road—as I read the article again, then again. Something about the story has sunk into my skin, refusing to let go.

My name is Frankie Elkin and finding missing people is what I do. When the police have given up, when 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, with no help.

I have no professional training. I'm not a former detective or registered PI or ex–anything special. I'm only me. An average, middle-aged white woman, short on belongings, long on regret. I tried real life once. There was a house, a job, even a man who loved me enough to hold my hand as I fought my way to sober.

In the end, the walls closed in; the relentless sameness drowned me. And the man who loved me . . .

One day, a woman in my AA meeting talked about her daughter who'd disappeared and the police's lack of interest in finding a young woman with a troubled past. I became intrigued, started asking questions, and the next thing I knew, I'd found the daughter. Unfortunately, the daughter's fucked-up boyfriend had chosen to blow off her head and abandon her body in a crack house rather than let her go. But despite the case not having a happy ending, or maybe because of that, one search became another, which became another.

Ten years later, this is now my life. I travel from place to place, armed with only my good intentions. Currently, I've been traveling by bus to Idaho to take up the case of Eugene Santiago, an eight-year-old boy now missing sixteen months. I read about Eugene's disappearance in one of the various online cold case forums I frequent. Something about his soulful dark eyes, his very serious smile. I don't always know why I choose the cases I do. There are so many of them out there. But I spot a headline, I read an article, and then I just know.

Kind of like now, I think, setting down the local paper. I haven't done a woodland search in forever. Mostly I work small rural communities or dense urban neighborhoods. I gravitate more toward kids than adults, minorities more than Caucasians. But my mission is to help the underserved, and as the families of those sixteen hundred people vanished in public parks will tell you, they are so underserved.

Mostly, I keep thinking of Timothy O'Day's mother, who just wants to be buried next to her son.

Eugene Santiago has been missing for nearly a year and a half. A few more weeks won't matter. And while there may be no chance of finding Timothy O'Day alive, I know from experience that finally bringing home a body still makes a difference.

I pick up the bus schedule and plot my new destination.




CHAPTER 2

Being poor requires patience. I don't own a car or have the kind of bank account that can allow me a rental to get to the small town of Ramsey, Wyoming. Which means taking a bus from point A to B to C. Bus stops are more varied than many people realize. As in, there might be a beautiful mass transit station complete with restrooms and fast food. Or there can be this: a gas station mini-mart sitting completely alone off the side of the road.

The bus moves on and I stay behind, trying to get my bearings. It's early afternoon. Above me, the sky is a shade of rich blue I associate with postcards and other people's lives. This rural route is a dark gray strip rippling between the distant towering mountains behind me and the incredibly close towering mountains ahead of me.

I've never been to Wyoming, so far I love everything about it. The smell of warm earth and sun-dried grass. The sound of country music pouring out of the store's speakers. The number of trucks and cattle haulers rumbling by.

I feel simultaneously excited by the vast unknown and terrified. Just because I don't like to be tied down doesn't mean I enjoy feeling untethered.

I wander into the small, dusty mini-mart. An older man with a faded red ball cap and bushy brown whiskers looks up from behind the register. He gives me a short nod followed by a hard stare, clearly recognizing a stranger when he sees one. I'm used to it by now. I'm never the local, always just an outsider, passing through.

I splurge on a candy bar and a bottle of water, then plant myself in front of a rack of brochures advertising local attractions. The man goes back to his magazine. Nothing to see here.

Normally, I plan my targets well in advance. Research the area while skimming the classifieds for local employment and potential housing options. But now my last-minute impulse has me flying blind. I can't decide if this is incredibly daring or unbelievably stupid. Many of my decisions feel that way.

Most people would pull out their smartphones and Google away. Unfortunately, my job—obsessively locating missing people—doesn't pay at all, while my side hustle—bartending part-time at the location of the moment—doesn't pay well. The result is that my "smart" phone is an old flip phone with a limited data plan. On a good day, it might receive a text. Google would mostly reduce it to a lump of melted microchips.

Likewise, I don't own a computer or even a tablet. I'd love the luxury, but I don't just lead a nomadic lifestyle, I lead a high-risk one. As in, many of the places I frequent are known for their high crime rates and opposition to outsiders. I've had rental units broken into, property vandalized; I've had good-ol'-boy cops confront me with shotguns and grieving relatives attack me with broken beer bottles.

I originally walked away from material possessions because I felt the weight of them dragging me down. Now I don't own anything I can't afford to lose because I don't want to die one day trying to protect something I never should've cared about in the first place.

If I were near a major town, I'd utilize an internet café or public library to do my homework. But given that I'm currently stranded at a gas station in the middle of Wyoming, travel brochures it is.

I see pictures of bighorn sheep, craggy mountains, and deep blue lakes. I can attempt horseback riding, scale rock formations, and take up hunting and fishing. There are warnings about bears—Be Bear Aware!—maps of local trails, and orders not to pick wildflowers. After the past ten months, which I spent in an inner-city neighborhood in Boston, followed by a sad housing project near Memphis, the photos of the great outdoors make me giddy.

Though once again, that faint fissure of alarm. I've done wildland searches, but never in any place as rugged as these mountains. I've walked the woods, but I don't know anything about grizzly bears. While too many of my searches have led to sad discoveries, I've never set out explicitly to find a corpse.

I think of Patrice O'Day, who just wants to be buried next to her son.

"Why do everyone's problems have to be your problem?" Paul had griped at me. "What will it take before you realize that you're the one who matters. You, Frankie. I love you."

I don't talk to Paul anymore. But on occasion, I still call his widow.

I've just finished my deep dive into local intel when a beat-up Chevy truck pulls up to a gas pump. The back is piled high with straw bales, the lower sides sprayed liberally with mud. A woman in worn jeans, a sleeveless T-shirt, and a fawn-colored cowboy hat climbs out.

Perfect.

I give a parting nod to the silent store attendant, then step outside to negotiate my next mode of transportation.


I grew up in a small town in Northern California. My father was the world's most affable drunk, my mother the world's angriest enabler. He drank, she worked. He drank more, she worked more.

Which is to say, neither of them spared much thought for me. I ran around wild in the days before we worried about stranger danger and what kind of lone men lingered at playgrounds. Like most kids, I owned a secondhand bike with a rusty frame and a duct-taped banana seat. I rode it anywhere and everywhere. Though of course, there's only so far a girl on a bike can go. Which meant if I or the other kids wanted to make it to the five-and-dime to spend our spare change on two-cent Jolly Ranchers, we hitchhiked. Stood along the main thoroughfare and stuck out our thumbs.

Sometimes there might be six of us, piling on top of one another in the back of whichever vehicle took pity on us. Sometimes it might be me and my best friend, Sophie. Sometimes it was just me, because my dad was already passed out and my mom hours from getting home—and even back then, I had problems staying put.

I never worried about the safety of climbing into a random person's vehicle; it's just what we did.

These days, most parents would advise their kids differently, and yet, for many rural areas, hitchhiking remains a way of life. Mass transit only passes through major towns. Taxis, Uber, car rentals—those are amenities for city folks.

The town of Ramsey is thirteen miles from this final bus stop. A bit far to walk in the bright August sun, let alone the relentlessly dry heat. So copping a ride it is.

I approach the woman pumping gas. She glances up, nods once in greeting. She looks around my age, with sun-darkened skin and lean, muscled arms. Horsewoman for sure, I can tell by the way she's standing. I instantly like her, but this is one of my few superpowers. In my own loner-like way, I'm actually a people person.

Whether other people like me, however, is always an interesting question.

Now I keep it simple. "I'm Frankie Elkin. I'm looking to get to Ramsey. If you're headed in that direction, I'm hoping I might catch a ride."

The woman eyes me, my rolling suitcase, my battered brown leather satchel. I wonder what she sees, or maybe doesn't see. I'm not old. I'm not young. I'm not pretty. I'm not horrifying. I'm not from here, but then I'm not from anywhere.

Pump clicks off. She replaces the nozzle, goes to work on the gas cap.

"I have gas money," I offer, then try to remember how much cash I have jammed in my front pocket. I'm down to my last hundred and twelve bucks. It's okay, I've survived on less.

"Who are you?" the woman asks.

"Frankie—"

"No. Who are you?"

"Technically, I'm a professional bartender."

"Why Ramsey?"

"Because I also look for missing persons, and I'm interested in the Timothy O'Day case."

"You're a reporter?"

"Nope. Just a person who looks for other people." I shrug. "There's more demand for someone like me than you might suspect."

"That your gear?"

"Yes."

"Where's your pack? Hiking boots? Camping gear?"

I glance down at my roll-aboard suitcase, bruised from so many towns, miles, bus rides. The horsewoman raises a good point. No way I can take luggage on a hike into the mountains. So there might be a few flaws with my impulsive decision. That's never stopped me before.

"I'll figure it out."

On Sale
Jan 18, 2022
Page Count
416 pages
ISBN-13
9780593185414