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SERIAL WAVES


By Jill Pritchett




Copyright 2017 Jill Pritchett

Published by Jill Pritchett




License Notes

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.




Dedication


To my husband, Dennis. You’ve always been my hero.



CHAPTER 1



Sally Miller stared at the placid, tea- colored water of West Virginia’s New River and shivered. Looking up, she searched through the treetops for the sun. Golden rays streamed down in a haphazard pattern, stippling light and shadow on the sand. But nothing could reassure Sally. The needle pricks of fear that had tormented her all morning were actually heightened by the sight of the river. A remnant of ancient streams in ancient mountains, it meandered through a deep, wide gorge. Ironically, the New was one of the oldest rivers in the world. Here, at the put-in, it was flat-surfaced and benign, with sunlit water-diamonds dancing across its surface. But Sally knew what lay ahead. She had seen the photos. Of course, so had all her friends, and they were bursting with excitement. The four college girls had driven five hours from Ohio for the thrill of a whitewater rafting trip. And they were finally here! Sally had been accepted into the Tri-Sigs. It was the sorority on campus, and the girls were very exclusive. Never mind that she was admitted in the last semester of her junior year. Never mind that her family couldn’t afford this quest of hers. She had a night job at Burger King to pay for the dues and the necessary Delt accessories that proved she was one of them. This was important if you were going to get anywhere in life. And she was going somewhere. She was the first person in her family to go to college, and Sally needed to fit in because she had plans--she was going to be a nurse. She wanted to help people, and the Tri-Sigs could help her get there. So she’d allowed herself to be talked into this whitewater trip by her new sorority sisters--and now she regretted it. Even the bus ride down to the river was scary. A bus laden with noisy rafters barely managed a narrow, twisting road that descended into the depths of the gorge. Staring out the bus window, she had watched the steep cliff drop away, and wished she were back safe in her dorm.

Sally took a deep breath, grabbed her paddle, and summoned the tenacity that had gotten her into college. She wasn’t a strong swimmer, but, watching her smiling sorority sisters, she arranged her face to accommodate the majority, and stepped into the raft. With hands that shook, she checked the buckles on her lifejacket and helmet. Her girlfriends, plus three men from New York, had claimed the tube seats at the front of the boat, so Sally felt some relief when she was able to sit beside the guide. It seemed to be the safest place—right beside the whitewater guide. Besides, he was really cute. Sally studied him as he helped them practice their paddle strokes. He was tanned, with tight muscles and razor sharp eyes that took in everyone in his boat with a confident sweep. His name was John. Sally smiled and decided that this could turn out to be a fun trip after all.

She dipped her paddle into the river and looked around. The high walls of the gorge were dressed in bright green. It was early June in the mountains, and the leaves had yet to turn into the rich, dark greens of summer. Trees at the river’s edge dipped their branches gracefully into the water as a mallard and her ducklings swam along the shore. The other rafters floated around Sally’s boat, practicing their paddle techniques. They laughed and joked. Some had squirt guns and made war on the unwary. She practiced her paddle strokes as they proceeded down the river, but she had never become as confident as the others. They sported wild grins, the air around them electric with excitement. Sally put on her brave face, paddled hard, and, when they encountered little riffles, tried to make her screams sound more thrilled than scared.

She’d managed to keep it up all morning, and could even feel herself relax a little. That is, until after the lunch break. That’s when their guide, John, seemed to change. They had pulled the rafts out at a narrow beach, and the river guides had picked a large, flat rock on which to spread out a lunch of ham biscuits, pasta salad, lemonade, and chocolate chip cookies. Wet rafters sat on logs to eat and laugh and talk. Sally took a seat opposite their guide, hoping for some conversation. John had been jovial at first, but, by the time the guides were cleaning up the picnic, Sally noticed something different. John had become quiet and withdrawn. He seemed preoccupied even as they started paddling down the river. His blue eyes had lost their luster, as if they were turned inward. He called the rapids all right, but Sally could tell that something in him had inexplicably changed.

And the river changed, too. The canyon walls narrowed, the current roared faster, and the whitewater became violent waves crashing into the boat. The raft, its bow high in the air, sliced through a huge wave and plunged down into another. Sally began to panic. She tried to paddle, but the rapids were so big that she just bounced around in the boat, grabbing onto anything she could find, as they slammed into walls of whitewater towering above them. More than once, Sally found herself on the floor of the raft, and, even though she wanted to stay there, she pulled herself up and continued to paddle. She hadn’t wanted to come, but she was here now, and had no choice but to continue down this river. Besides, her girlfriends were having a great time, laughing and flirting with the guys from New York. What could she do but keep her brave face on? But it seemed to Sally that she’d struggled down this river her entire life. Silently, she prayed that it would all end soon.

“We’re . . . uh . . . about to enter . . . Double Z Rapid, folks, so . . . uh . . . listen up,” the guide intoned. They drifted toward an awesome roar, and Sally felt her stomach lurch. John’s voice faltered; then he slowly began to tell the crew how they would enter the rapid. Sally couldn’t listen. Instead, she focused on John’s face. It had become slack somehow. Abruptly, he stopped talking and his eyes grew large, showing the whites. Something was wrong!

Sally glanced around at her friends in the raft. As usual, no one paid any attention to John. Oh, they would paddle, but the girls and guys mainly flirted, relying on John to get them through the whitewater. Now, at this crucial moment, they were talking to each other or gawking at the rapid straight ahead. Sally gripped her paddle and began to shake. The rapid was straight ahead, and John was doing—nothing! No, not nothing—he stood with his paddle in the air while his mouth silently opened and closed.

And no one was paddling!

The crew finally snapped to attention as they drifted down the muddy tongue, and into the mouth of the rapid. But it was too late. The raft hit a rock with a shock and spun sideways. Sally grabbed a strap of webbing and just had time to scream before the boat rolled over a small ledge and flipped, spilling all the passengers. Instantly, she was in the river. For a moment she popped up to the surface, but there was no surface. Sally pushed her hand above her head, felt it bounce back and realized that she was under the inverted raft. Then, in the shadows under the tubes, she saw him. John’s eyes bulged, seeing nothing as he clawed at her and grabbed her wrist. She gulped a thin breath of air before she was pulled under the surface. She pushed at his face and tried to pull away, but John held her tight. Even as she fought, the river kept bashing, bashing her against the rocks—always underwater.

Now her lungs began to burn. No! Not me! Not now! She kicked at John and landed her heel square on his jaw. Shocked, he released her wrist, and she frantically fought her way to the surface. Buoyed by her lifejacket, Sally gulped air. All around her lay water, foam, and waves. Again, she felt him grab her. He had her ankle this time. Together they hit another rock and, once more, Sally was underwater. She kicked and kicked at him. She could see the surface just above her: a watery glimpse of light. She hadn’t much air in her lungs, but maybe it was enough. Kicking hard with all her remaining strength, this time she connected with his groin and broke John’s hold.

YES! She clawed her way to the surface. I’m going to make it!

Sally kicked hard against the current, but she was not moving. She was being sucked down though a long, watery tube. Suddenly, she felt her body forced under a rock, pushed there against something strangely soft. The current held her there, crushing her even as she fought, even as she tore at the rock with her fingernails, even as she released her last, final breath of air.



CHAPTER 2



“I can’t stand it anymore! I’m going to get a facelift!” Bonnie Franca peered into the mirror pulling her cheeks toward her ears. “My God, that’s better!” Getting no rise from Kelly, and wishing she could tell her friend the truth, she decided to try again. “With that windfall from Archie’s life insurance policy, I can afford to spend some money on myself. After all, I’ve been investing in the house, the barn—everything except me. I owe it to myself. Our profession’s crawling with kids, and they look younger every year.” Bonnie glanced at Kelly Williams typing obsessively on her computer, an activity that had kept her preoccupied for the last few weeks.

“You’re spending that money like you had your own coal mine,” Kelly said, pausing for a few beats. “Besides, I told you not to buy a mirror that magnifies that much.” Her own youthful face, hidden by a fall of brown bangs and covered in large owl-like glasses, was still glued to the computer screen. She was short and sturdy, hiding her frame in jeans and a faded blue sweatshirt—normal attire for the manager of one of the top outfitters at the New River Gorge. The WestvirginiaWhiteWater office, conveniently located just off busy Route 19, was quiet except for the two women. A few cars crunched the gravel outside, but the raft trips had yet to return from the river, and the grounds around WWW’s headquarters were, for the moment, serene.

Bonnie pushed herself away from the offending mirror and turned her attention to Kelly. “Are you preparing next week’s schedule?” she asked, leaning over Kelly’s shoulder to peer at the computer screen.

“Yeah, and it’s taking a lot of juggling.” Kelly persisted to pound the keys.

Bonnie returned the mirror to its normal side and continued to study her reflection. She didn’t see her deep brown eyes, her high cheekbones, or flawless nose. Instead, she saw fine creases that radiated out from the corners of her eyes, and deeper lines etching her mouth. Her eyes were no longer wide and innocent as before in her youth. Now they revealed a depth of maturity that she didn’t feel. “Have you got me down for any trips? At my age, I need to plan well ahead of time.”

“Okay,” Kelly said, turning to face her. “You’ve got my attention.”

“I’ve been thinking . . . I’m getting a bit old to be taking screaming customers down the river. It’s a lot of responsibility at my age.”

“Damn! I missed your birthday. That’s what this is all about, right?”

“Nope, I canceled my birthdays--but, mine’s January seventeenth. Nice try, though.”

Kelly’s owl-eyes blinked as she regarded her friend.

Bonnie’s tan legs were crossed Indian style on the narrow office chair. She pushed away from the mirror and ran her fingers through short-cropped blonde hair. Even with that weathered, river-guide look, she appeared elfin. Liquid brown eyes and olive skin hinted at her Italian heritage. Her slight build was fortified with river-guide muscles hidden under baggy shorts and a pink tee-shirt with the WWW logo. A faded pair of Teva sandals testified to numerous river trips.

“Maybe I’m just seeing too many wrinkles,” Bonnie conceded, “but, I’ve got to admit that I’m starting to feel my age.”

“Oh, brother,” Kelly said, and turned back to her work. Then she whirled back around to face Bonnie. “You’re not thinking of quitting, are you?”

“Well . . . I’ve toyed with the idea.” There, I’ve said it! Feeling the power of her words gain momentum, Bonnie braved on. “With the insurance money that I got from Archie’s death—bless his philandering heart—I don’t have to work as much. I can slow down a bit.”

Kelly’s eyes opened wide, sending her glasses down the bridge of her nose. “Well, stop it! Why, you’re one of the best guides I’ve got. You’re certainly the best female guide at WWW. I need you.” Before Bonnie could protest, Kelly pounced again. “I need a role model for my gal guides, and you’re great with the trainees. I NEED you!”

Bonnie winced. “It’s a lot of responsibility. And I’m not as strong as I used to be.”

“Oh, stop it!” Kelly stood up, her dark ponytail bouncing as she scowled at Bonnie. “You know what it takes to get down that river, and strength has less to do with it than knowledge and experience. Why, you’re more skilled that some of the men on my roster!”

The sound of a large engine and the squeal of brakes suddenly invaded the office. Kelly grabbed Bonnie’s hand, pulled her out the office door and onto a wooden porch sporting a long row of rocking chairs. “You’ve gotta get over this midlife crisis. Just look around.” Kelly gestured at the WWW complex, less than a mile from the New River Gorge Bridge.

Bonnie squinted in the bright sunlight and took in the familiar surroundings. Identical cedar board-and-batten buildings with green metal roofs were scattered across a broad expanse of manicured lawn. A wide parking lot paved with red-dog gravel (a sienna-colored waste product from the area’s coal mining industry) separated the office building from the circular open-air pavilion where rafters gathered for their river trips. Wet passengers, clutching paddles and lifejackets, scrambled out of a long, blue bus parked in front of the pavilion. Painted on the side of the bus was a design of standing waves that formed the WWW logo. Rafters laughed and talked enthusiastically about their trip. Soon they would gather at the pavilion to drink volumes of beer and watch videos of their braving the whitewater. The whine of an airplane engine made Bonnie look up. Five Dollar Frank’s little red Aztec was tourist-toting high above the gorge. The trip now cost $25 per person, but the small plane remained a familiar sight.

“Now, girlfriend,” Kelly said, “get over your midlife crisis, or whatever this is. You know you’d miss all this. It’s been your home for—how many years?”

“I dunno . . . eight? Ten?” Bonnie said, wistfully. WWW was her home away from home. She loved everything about the place: the cozy, casual staff; the enthusiastic rafters who were always thrilled to be there; the deep, wild gorge and all it had to offer. She tried to remember her first trip down the river, but it was only a memory of white foam, big waves, and lots of adrenaline. Her memories after guide training were different, though. They were solid memories that she kept close to her heart. Bonnie had fallen in love with whitewater from the first river trip she took, and every rafting trip thereafter just intensified that feeling. During guide training, when the weather was cold and the water was frigid, she had excelled. Being the only woman among ten trainees, she’d had to. She pushed herself to be better than the men, and, at the end of the training season, when the count had been reduced to four trainees; she’d been one of the first to “top out.” Even today, she could remember her first trip with customers and the exhilaration of having her own boat and her own crew for the first time. She could still recall the names of some of those customers, although she couldn’t tell you the names of the people she’d guided on countless other river trips. Bonnie breathed a sigh as she watched the rafters slowly disappear into the forest that hid the campground. Yeah, I’ll miss this place.



CHAPTER 3



The sunlight reflected off Kelly’s glasses as she turned away from the plane to face Bonnie. “How’d this come out of the blue? You never even hinted about wanting to quit.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sorry about that.” Bonnie looked down and found something of interest on the porch floor. She pushed a bit of paper with her sandal and watched it fall onto the red-dog.

“Look,” Kelly said, “you’ve bounced around for the last—how many years?—in various careers--”

“Two careers, Kelly. Two!”

“So . . . give up that little column in the paper. You’re still at the same level in that job despite the killer piece you wrote about that General guy. Just stay here.”

It’s true, Bonnie thought. I was a hero writer one week, and humble whitewater guide the next. She whistled another sigh. “Somehow, it’s just not that easy.”

“Sure it is! Just stop the bouncing around. Juggling careers—and men—is sure to give you wrinkles.” Kelly ignored Bonnie’s glare and continued. “If I were you, I’d think long and hard about leaving this place. Think about what it’s given to you—friendships, great times—Dwight.”

Bonnie gave Kelly another quick glance. Yes, Dwight--a relationship that she couldn’t even call a relationship. Hell, she didn’t know what it was. They had trained together, were co-workers, and she’d always viewed him as a rich snob. But, for some reason, he was hot for her, and he’d worked his way right into her life at one of her most vulnerable times. He’d been kind and concerned, and she allowed him into her private world. But she’d let him get too close, and it had scared the shit out of her. Still, she had to admit that she liked him. Being around Dwight was as thrilling as crashing through whitewater.

Kelly pretended disinterest in the Bonnie-Dwight thing and continued: “Think of what got you here, and got you through the hell of guide training in the first place.”

Bonnie smiled, and then laughed. “I never did tell you, did I? The reason I signed up for guide training in the first place was on a dare. My sweet little sister, Maggie, dared me to do it.” Bless my Maggie. She sure knew how to pull me out of my self-imposed exile from life and give me one hell of a challenge. And she’d needed that challenge. In fact, she had needed an entirely new focus to climb out of the pit she’d found herself in.

“Ah, Maggie,” Kelly said. “So, that’s who I have to thank.”

“Yeah,” Bonnie replied, as her thoughts danced through triumphs and traumas: San Francisco where she fell in love with Archie Cline; leaving San Francisco and Archie Cline; and then sharing an apartment with Maggie. What fun we had! But that joy was short-lived. Within a few months, the girls had lost both their parents in a plane crash so horrible that it made CNN. It was a memory that, even now, Bonnie refused to dredge up. Then, as if that weren’t enough, the girls lost their Granny—their rock, and the only family member within driving distance. “Somebody up there doesn’t like us,” she’d told Maggie.

Bonnie pulled herself out of thoughts that flitted in the wrong direction. Probably has something to do with my frame of mind. She stole a look at Kelly, “I didn’t always aspire to be a river guide, you know?”

“Few of us do, silly.”

“I mean . . . I was a commercial artist in San Francisco. I was going to go to Paris. I had big plans.”

“Oh, stop whining. You’ve got a great life—a nice house. You’ve even got horses, for chrissake!”

“Well, the house is thanks to Granny, and the horses are thanks to Archie.” Bonnie leaned against the porch railing, looking out over the compound and the rafters. Yeah, she could thank Archie for the horses—and for the money that helped her keep Granny’s little farm. But she could also thank him for a lot of bitterness.

“Look, girlfriend,” Kelly said, tuning to face her. “Divorce can interfere with the best-laid plans. And no one forced you to marry Archie.”

“He followed me home. As soon as I got that house he left San Francisco—”

“You didn’t have to marry him!”

“After what I’d just been through? Do I look like Superwoman?”

Kelly laughed. “Well, Maggie must have thought you were, if she suggested you try out for whitewater guide.”

Bonnie relaxed and loosened her grip on the porch railing. She smiled at the memory. “Yeah, after the divorce, Maggie suggested a raft trip—innocent enough, right? Well, it was all screams and waves and walls of whitewater. I loved it! I felt like I was alive again. Powerful.” She took a deep breath, savoring the memory.

“Nothing ever compares to that first trip, but I was hooked, and Maggie suggested that I should apply to be a guide. So, here I am.” Bonnie’s smile evaporated. She was debating giving up the very thing that had kept her happy all these years. She orbited around WWW like a planet around its star, and that served to suppress the feeling that when life was good, something bad was bound to happen. And, something bad did happen, and, to make it worse, she couldn’t even talk about what it was that now pulled her away from that safe, comfortable orbit. No one in the guide community talked about fear of the loss of self-confidence—it was bad juju.

She looked at Kelly, knowing that she waited for an answer. “I just don’t have to do it, anymore,” she said. They watched as some rafters disappeared into the forest and others disappeared into the showers.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Kelly was beginning to show her frustration. She gestured again at the sprawling complex. “We do this for the fun of it! Or did you forget that?”

“I’ve always done it for it for the fun of it--that and the $600 a month.”

“Is this a play for a raise? Because, if it is, I’ll give it to you. God knows that you deserve it. I’d sure be at a loss if you weren’t around.”

“No, it’s not a play for a raise, although if Papa Joe okayed it . . . sure, but . . .” Bonnie looked away, not wanting Kelly to see her face. “Actually, I’m pretty comfortable now—that’s why I don’t have to do it anymore.” Bonnie wished she could tell Kelly why guiding hadn’t been fun for the past month. Oh, yeah, she knew that she still had the skills to take passengers down the river. And she still had the strength. Kelly had once been a guide, but that was now a forgotten memory. Bonnie knew that it did take strength. She still had all of that. What she was dealing with now was something new to her—something that had never been there before. She had been forced to look inside, and what she’d discovered was an older woman that she hardly recognized.

Bonnie had had an accident right at the beginning of the river season. The New was running at flood level, and her raft had flipped in the unpredictable reactionary wave at Double Z Rapid. She had been sucked underwater, caught in a whirlpool that wouldn’t let her go, and the next stop was deadly Table Rock. At the very last moment, when Bonnie thought that she was surely going to drown, she was shot out of the water and up against a sloping rock that, she would later swear, still had her fingernails embedded in its surface. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but she had experienced a fear that she’d never experienced before in her life—a dirty little secret that she hadn’t told anyone. Although she continued to guide, sure she could overcome the fear, guiding had changed. The danger that had once made it so thrilling now made her wake up in the middle of the night, worried about the customers in her raft. She was still out there, week after week, flying through whitewater, telling jokes to her customers, hoping the river gods would grant the return of the thrill. But, the more she paddled, the more she grew afraid that the river had sucked away what was left of her shattered confidence.

She looked at Kelly with baleful eyes, and wished she had the courage to explain to her friend. Instead she said, “I’m trying to simplify my life. I quit the newspaper job—just freelancing for them now. That helps. And guiding?” She paused. Maybe she could find her old self on the river; maybe the river gods would smile on her once more; maybe all she needed was a little time off. “I’ll have to think about it. Do you have me on next week’s schedule?”

“I’ve got you down to guide twice,” Kelly said. “Once during the week and again on Saturday. I’ve worked on this schedule all morning—”

“Make it just Saturday and let me think about it some more. Okay?”

“Oh, sure, nothing to it” Kelly said, with enough sarcasm to convey all the juggling she’d have to do. Before she could prod Bonnie any further, the phone in the office began an insistent ring.

Bonnie breathed a little easier when Kelly disappeared to answer the phone. She’d done what she had to do, although it hadn’t worked out exactly as she’d planned. She was torn, so she made a compromise: she would guide, but not too often. Time off just might drain away some of the pressure and let her sleep at night. And a once-a-week river trip just might bring back her self-confidence. She needed to orbit this star that was WWW. She needed the thrill of slamming through the big waves, she needed the cocky guides and rowdy customers, and she needed to be part of the river community that had lifted her from the abyss.

Suddenly, Bonnie felt tired—exhausted even. The restless night she’d spent worrying about how to tell Kelly had left her drained. What she wanted right now, more than anything in the world, was to go back to the sanctuary of the little home that was just south of WWW. She would go feed her horses, pop a dinner into the microwave, and curl up on the sofa to watch a movie.

“Oh, my God!” Kelly’s voice shrilled from the recesses of the office. Bonnie listened, but didn’t hear much else until Kelly crashed through the screen door and out onto the porch. “We’ve had an accident,” she announced. Shock paled her face. “And we’ve lost two people—a customer and a guide!”



CHAPTER 4



Lost? What does ‘lost’ mean? Bonnie’s stomach lurched and her brain went into overdrive. Could Dwight be the lost guide?

Kelly responded to Bonnie’s frantic thoughts. “It’s John Boy’s raft. They flipped at the top of Double Z. Everything--everyone’s--been recovered except for John Boy and a customer named Sally Miller.” Kelly looked at Bonnie, her eyes wild.

Lost? Like gone forever lost? Bonnie felt numb as the slow realization of what “lost” actually meant made her shiver. “Oh, my God! What do we do?” Helplessness vexed the numbness. “Who are you sending down there?”

“For now, we just wait,” Kelly said softly. “Rescue’s down there now, and they’ve got plenty of people helping out” She hung her head, hiding her eyes under her bangs. “Oh, this is so awful! What if they don’t find them? What if—”

“Don’t say it!” Bonnie blurted. “They’ll find them! The river’s running high and fast. They could’ve been carried all the way to Kaymoor Rapid. They’re just downriver somewhere. Probably clinging to a rock and wondering where the rescue is.”

Kelly looked up as one of the office girls approached the building.

“Sorry, I’m late,” a stick-legged, twenty-something named Birdy chirped as she bounded up the steps to the porch. With a wave to Kelly and Bonnie, Birdy flew through the screen door and perched on the stool behind the counter.

With shaking hands, Kelly pulled out her phone and tapped it a few times, grateful for the new cell tower at the rim of the gorge. “Dave? Call me on my cell phone from now on, okay? Anything new to report?” Kelly gave Bonnie a hopeful look, which changed into a frown within seconds. “Sure,” she said. “Thanks. Of course, I’ll be here.”

“Indian Dave?”

“Yeah. They still haven’t found them. Dave called Park Service and the sheriff, along with whitewater rescue. If they aren’t found by nightfall, then the Corps of Engineers will have to lower the river level. If they flipped at Double Z they could be—they could be—”

“Under Table Rock.” Bonnie had her own horrid memories of the rapid. It was an undercut rock, which meant that anything the current carried there would be held under the rock-shelf by a force so powerful that the river had to be lowered for any kind of retrieval. It was certain death centered in an already technically difficult rapid. No doubt about it. Guides on the New have to be damn good. She wondered, what could have happened to John Boy? He’d been with the company for just two years, but, from what she’d seen, his performance on the river had been exceptionally good. But, the river doesn’t care who you are. The river’s still the river and anything can happen. And how well she knew!

“Stick around,” Kelly said. “Please? We’ve never had anything like this happen before--never--in the entire history of WWW!” She shoved the cell phone into her pocket, wiped her cheeks, and studied the grounds. Happy rafters were still milling around. “My God! Poor John Boy! And Sally Miller! I just greeted her--and her friends--last night.” She pulled out a bandana and blew her nose. Then she pulled her shoulders back and faced the milling crowd.

Another bus arrived to add more souls into the mix. Kelly still had customers and they deserved her attention. She noticed someone unloading heavy boxes from a van parked beside the pavilion. “Oh, no!” she said. “It’s too early for the DJ to set up.” Kelly turned once more to Bonnie as she vaulted down the steps. “Stick around!” And then she was gone, sprinting across the parking lot, her signature ponytail bobbing, her short legs pumping.

Bonnie watched the scene in quiet amazement, marveling at her friend who already had a pack of problems on her back, yet had to shoulder even this menial task required of the manager of one of the busiest whitewater companies in Fayetteville. Gradually it began to sink in: there had been an accident—maybe a fatality. Maybe two fatalities. Oh, God! Bonnie’s shaking knees started to give way. This could be a real tragedy! She grasped the porch railing to steady herself, forcing her mind to accept the unacceptable, as she watched the grounds come to life. Sounds of laughter drifted through the trees. The aroma of barbequed pork hung in the air as campers sat at the picnic tables nestled under a giant chestnut tree. Everything seemed so . . . normal. Too normal for Bonnie. The feeling was all too familiar. It was like when you had a death in the family. After all the flowers have wilted, you reenter the real world, where you’re shocked that everything has remained unchanged. That’s when you realize, with an ache of loneliness, that it’s you that’s changed. Maybe forever.

The sounds of Birdie chirping on the phone came through the office door. Right now, all was normal because no one knew. But soon the news would settle on WWW like a black fog. It would happen fast, and Bonnie needed to snap out of it. She had no idea what would be required of her, but she certainly needed to get rid of the deer-in-the-headlights expression on her face. Kelly needed her, and the bus with the ill-fated raft trip would return soon. And Dwight would be on that bus. At least, she assumed so. Kelly will know who’s staying down at the river and who’s on the bus.

Bonnie crossed the parking lot, vaulted the pavilion steps two at a time, and then wove her way through the gathering crowd until she saw Kelly with the DJ. “Is there anything I can do?” she mouthed when she caught Kelly’s attention. She knew she couldn’t be heard over the din of noise that came from customers watching the video. The video itself was noisy enough with the constant roar of the rapids at full volume. More freshly showered rafters joined others already lining up at the keg. Talking with voices full of excitement, they were eager to watch themselves shoot the rapids. Afterward, they would pull out their wallets, buy photos and videos to take back and show the home folks. The videos were the best advertisement the whitewater industry had.

Kelly freed herself from the DJ and pulled Bonnie into the closet-sized video dubbing room. When she closed the door it dulled the outside noise just enough for them to talk. “I’ll need your help when the bus gets in,” she said. “There’s gonna be police and reporters coming around, and there’s no way to keep this secret from the rest of the customers. Indian Dave is staying at the river to work with Red Dragon’s rescue unit. They’re still searching, of course, and will until nightfall. But Dwight is bringing the rest of the trip back, and I’ll need you then.” Kelly checked her watch. “They’ll be here in less than an hour, and Indian Dave will call me from the river if they find anything.”

“And if they don’t find them?”

“They’ll lower the river.” Kelly’s voice trembled.

Bonnie steeled herself. “I’m sure those kids are downriver somewhere. The river’s so fast and that’s probably why they haven’t found them. Dwight will find them,” Bonnie said, still struggling to believe it.

“I hope you’re right, but—it’s Double Z—if they haven’t found them by now . . . .” Kelly pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, opened the door, and stepped back into the chaos of the party. Bonnie stood there, awash with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. She followed Kelly, but only partway. The Fayette County Sheriff’s cruiser was parked at the office and Kelly raced across the red-dog. Bonnie didn’t envy Kelly her job. Already the shock of the news had drained Bonnie to a hollow shell. And filling that shell was a growing sense of dread.

Poor John Boy. And a customer! Some poor girl who came to the river for a great adventure and ended up—what? Bonnie still refused to believe that they might be dead. She had a sinking feeling about how it would affect WWW and all the people employed there. In the old days, when a rafting death made the news, there would be a news flash, then a flutter, but however, no damage done to the whitewater industry. With the advent of the internet and cell phones, there was virtually no end to the harmful exposure. She choked back the lump in her throat and searched the crowd for the faces of her fellow guides. They always accompanied their customers to this post-rafting ritual, and they were easy to spot. Even though the customers sported river sandals and shorts, somehow the guides were more gnarly and weathered, with the permanent look of confidence worn by most of the river rats.

But today their expressions were different. Lori--one of WWW’s weekend warriors, and a nurse during the week—exhibited a professional smile. Bonnie picked out Smooth Willie standing with his customers, a plastic cup of beer in his hand, and his eyes on the video. His face was frozen in a smile. When his eyes met Bonnie’s, the smile faded, and he gazed at the floor. Now she knew that he knew. The WWW grapevine was in full swing.

Despite Kelly’s plea for her to stay, Bonnie needed to get away--at least long enough to regain her composure. She just needed five minutes to cry before all hell broke loose. She took the pavilion steps two at a time, practically running across the red-dog, past the office porch where Kelly was talking to the sheriff, past Birdy, still on the phone, and into the sheltered forest of the Guide Ghetto. Under the trees, the disorderly arrangement of guides’ tents created a colorful scene. She walked along the path, past tents, teepees, and roughly-constructed huts, until she paused at the trunk of a mammoth tree wearing a handmade sign:

LORI’S LITTLE LODGE

PRIVATE!

THAT MEANS YOU!

Above Bonnie’s head rose a treehouse complete with windows, shutters, and a shingled roof. Feeling stronger for getting her butt up and moving, she continued along the path toward Smooth Willie’s teepee. Everyone knew it was Smooth Willie’s because it was the only place in the ghetto with cable stretching from the office to the equipment shed and on into the teepee, the cable was a dead giveaway. She paused, breathing in the scent of the forest. She could still hear the party going on at the pavilion, but the trees muted the sound; so she searched for privacy, where she could release the dreaded tears unobserved. The ghetto had been created by non-local guides. They gathered here on the weekends, from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Ohio. One guide was a police officer who drove south from Chicago every weekend. Weekend Warriors! Bonnie shook her head. They were bitten by the whitewater bug just as she’d been--maybe even worse. After all, she lived only an hour down the road—most of these guys did some real driving.

Needing to steel herself for the upcoming ordeal, and wanting to keep her emotions unobserved, she shifted gears and began to jog down the path. She passed the equipment shed, where a couple of guides were unloading rafts from a flatbed truck, and continued down the hill to run alongside Waves’ Whitewater—a small rafting company adjacent to WWW. One of the Waves’ trips had just returned, as she watched rafters pour out of an old bus in front of the faded trailer that served as their office. She jogged around the little company and then continued along the top of a ridge that ran parallel to busy Rt. 19. Across the four-lane highway she could see “Ride ’n Raft,” a combination outfitter that added horseback riding to its rafting trips. A goose-neck trailer had just pulled up, and someone was unloading the horses by handing them off to a girl who released them into a paddock. The sun hung low in a burnished sky. It was time for all the river trips to return.

Now Bonnie slowed to a walk. Hands on her hips, she gulped breaths of air while forcing herself to focus. From her place on top of the ridge, she could see all the way to the New River Gorge Bridge which spanned the chasm with the 3000-foot-leap of the world’s largest steel arch span. The completion of the bridge after 1977 had reduced a precarious forty-minute drive to less than a minute, and made the wild beauty of the area available to the tourists who were just beginning to discover West Virginia. The bridge—a tourist attraction in its own right—was the second highest in the country, and stood a daunting 876 feet above a turbulent whitewater river. Bonnie shuddered. This was where Archie had plummeted to his death, jumping off the bridge during the annual Bridge Day Festival. They called themselves BASE jumpers, for Building, Antennae, Span and Earth. Jumpers from all over the country would line up along the bridge’s railing for the pleasure of parachuting off from it. For Archie it didn’t turn out so well. His canopy had failed to open, and he’d hit the river in a neck-breaking fall. Bonnie’s rescue boat was the first to reach him. She shuddered again with the memory. Archie was a womanizing bastard, but he didn’t deserve that.

Propelling herself to a trot, she continued to follow the trail as it circled along the ridge to emerge at the WWW campground—an open meadow surrounded by forest. The colorful tents were deserted, although a variety of cars and SUVs dotted the landscape. Most of the tourists were still on the river or at the pavilion. But tonight, she knew, the field would be full of boisterous campers reveling in their river trip against a backdrop of stars and roaring campfires. Bonnie darted across the meadow and through the trees that thinned out at the noisy pavilion. She scanned the scene, but did not see Kelly, who was probably still with the sheriff; so she crossed the parking lot, slowing to a walk as she approached the office. The sheriff’s car was gone, and Bonnie breathed a sigh of relief. Having jogged away the numbness of shock, she began to ponder what lay ahead. An accident, maybe a fatality, had just occurred. She found herself repeating this to herself, as if trying to make it seem real. They’d never had a fatality on the river. Racing Rivers had had one two years ago, and now the little outfitter no longer even existed. And then she wondered just how Kelly was going to deal with the shattered customers when they came back from their ill-fated trip. Of course, there might not be a fatality. That was still a possibility. But as soon as she plopped down on the office steps to catch her breath, she knew that she was wrong.



CHAPTER 5



“On no!” Once again, it was Kelly’s voice coming from inside the office. Bonnie listened to her friend speaking in soft tones. The news was not good. The Corps of Engineers would lower the river overnight, and rescue services would look for the two victims at dawn. She watched the office door until Kelly stepped out onto the porch.

“I heard,” she said, standing to face her friend.

Kelly wiped her eyes and squared her shoulders. “Dave said there are three girls—three hysterical girls coming back in a Park Service Jeep that’s following the bus. The missing customer, Sally Miller, they’re her friends. I’ll need you to take care of them.”

Bonnie was horrified. “My God, Kel, what do you want me to do?” She wanted to say that she had no maternal instincts—not even a hint, unless you included horses, which she didn’t think counted.

“Just stay with them. They’re not going to want to be around this happy bunch, are they?” Kelly eyed the pavilion, and then looked at her watch. “The bus will be here in about thirty minutes.”

“What did the sheriff say? Does anyone know what happened?”

“No one knows anything right now. John Boy was running sweep, so he was the last raft. With everyone else in front of John, no one saw it happen. The cops have already interviewed Sally’s three friends, but they’re going to want to talk to all the guides on the trip. Can you believe it? No one but John’s customers--who’re scared shitless and know nothing about guiding--saw anything.”

Another bus pulled into the parking lot. “I’ve got to go,” Kelly said. “Keep an eye out for John Boy’s trip and meet me at the pavilion.” Then she pasted on a smile and crossed the parking lot to greet the jovial rafters spilling out of the bus.

Bonnie watched her disappear into the congestion of orange lifejackets and yellow paddles. She needed to get over this feeling of helplessness. The jog had made her thirsty, so she walked the short distance to Smiley’s—a small bar and grill adjacent to the WWW parking lot. It was a hangout for the river crowd. Customers could walk to the sprawling building with the wraparound screen porch to consume enormous quantities of burgers, steaks, and beer. The guides would show up later to play darts, share the day’s river stories, and consume even more beer. It was still early, so Bonnie slipped into the privacy of a booth in the corner. She could look out the window and watch the road for the WWW bus—it would be the last trip to come in today.

“Can I help you?”

Bonnie looked up at a smiling waitress with pen and pad ready. “A large Diet Coke with plenty of crushed ice, please.”

The waitress had just returned with Bonnie’s drink when Sonny Waves, dressed in his signature Hawaiian shirt and faded jeans, made a boisterous entrance. A short, floozy blonde was hanging on his arm as if he might attempt to escape. Bonnie tried not to stare, but everything about the woman invited ogling. Her bulbous hairdo was held firmly in place with a shiny varnish of hairspray. Bright green eyes, a tiny pinched nose, and a rosebud mouth were centered in a wrinkled face. Bonnie thought it was a face that might have been pretty once, before the onslaught of years had ruined it. Then she regarded Sonny. A perfect pair! Somehow, Sonny’s purple-veined nose, bleary blue eyes and white stubble of beard suited the withered floozy, who plucked at his sleeve possessively when the waitress appeared. Bonnie wondered what Sonny had been like in his glory days. It was said he’d been the best at running the river—solo, and in a canoe, no less.

It was in the mid-eighties that Sonny had managed to start up a small raft company on the postage stamp of land that Papa Joe, WWW’s absentee owner, had sold to the Waves family. Papa Joe and Sonny Waves were Fayetteville locals, and it was rumored that their friendship went back to when they had started WWW together—Papa Joe was the money man and Sonny was the manager. But, with the growing popularity of whitewater rafting, Sonny soon wanted his own company. Papa Joe sold him two acres of the original twenty five, and Sonny managed to borrow enough money to start Waves’ Whitewater. It was a small operation, but a solid business. Sonny had gone out into the coalfields and offered the miners double-discounts on rafting trips. He built up a fair trade with the coalfield families, plus he got the overflow bookings from WWW. If there was any rivalry between the two outfitters, it sure didn’t show.

“How about two Buds, Gertie?” Sonny slapped some bills on the bar, then looked around the room and saw Bonnie. He smiled at her and turned to face the waitress. “Hell of a day on the river,” he said. “We’ve got a crowd of happy customers coming in later, Gertie, so get ready for them.”

Bonnie involuntarily flinched and turned her attention back to the window. Sure enough, as if following Sonny’s orders, a pack of thirsty rafters and guides from Waves’ Whitewater flowed across the parking lot and into Smiley’s.

As time dragged on, Bonnie became uneasy. When the bar grew crowded and noisy, she decided to leave. Better to be back on WWW turf than to be trapped in here with these merrymakers. Besides, the twinge of guilt that she had felt as she sat in Smiley’s air-conditioning and sipped her Coke had become a gnawing sense of shame. Kelly had wanted her to stay at WWW, but she had fled like a frightened child.

As she walked back to the office, her thoughts were only of the bus. Where was it? Was Dwight on it? And what the hell had happened on the river?



CHAPTER 6



Dwight David Dennison III, the sole heir to a coal baron’s fortune, stood in the aisle, holding onto the seats in front of him, as the bus lurched and groaned along the narrow road that climbed out of the gorge. He was hunched over, trying to shorten his tall body enough to see out the windshield. His face was grim, muscles drawn tight across an angular jaw. His thin lips curved down into a frown. The WWW baseball cap that he always wore to hide his receding hairline was pulled low over intense gray eyes. Still wearing his faded lifejacket and river shorts, Dwight looked just like any of the hundreds of river guides that crowded the gorge during the summer. But he was absolutely different.

Many of the guides were college students with summer dream jobs that would provide stories in dorms and frat houses for at least a semester. There was also a healthy dose of weekend warriors: men and women who had real jobs with normal lives that juxtaposed their surreal lives as weekend guides. But the fulltime guides—the people with winter jobs at the local ski resorts—were the heart and soul of the whitewater industry.

Dwight was none of these. After prep school in Virginia, an Ivy League education up north, and law school at the University of Virginia, he had been forced by his father’s ill health to return home and run the family business.

The Dennison Coal Company, an upstart in its early years, had, by the 1940s, grown into one of the state’s largest coal mining operations. But fifty years later, when Dwight took control, the entire coal industry in West Virginia was floundering. After his father died, and the Dennison mines and property had diminished by half, Dwight was preoccupied with studying for the state bar exam. He ran the company as best he could, quickly realized that he was not his father. Then his mother died, and his door to happiness shut with the slam of forever. That was when Dwight gave up his quest to pass the bar and began to drift through life. Without the need for a job, but needing to do something, he drifted from one adventure to another. He climbed mountains, got his pilot’s license, and traveled to faraway places. Still, a sense of emptiness remained. He filled his big house with girls and parties and stayed drunk on wine and women. But the emptiness remained. He became a recluse. After a few years of self-pity, a childhood friend, Jake McCoy, took him on a raft trip, and, somewhere deep inside, Dwight felt a slight shift. No, he wasn’t like the other guides, but that didn’t matter. He had finally found something he really loved to do.

He stared through the windshield without seeing. The mood in the bus was somber. The rafters, wild and excited on the river, had morphed into subdued rows of wet heads and orange lifejackets. Lost in his own thoughts, Dwight replayed the accident in his mind as he searched for something, any reason why the accident happened the way it did.

John Boy had been running sweep, which meant that he carried the medical kit and followed the rest of the rafts down the river. As trip leader, Dwight had proceeded down the river to wait above the next set of rapids for the rest of the rafts, when he heard the frantic sound of a whistle. He turned his boat around and paddled upriver to pick up the swimmers and gear that always accompanied a crash-and-burn.

Boaters busily hauled in the hapless rafters and paddled over to the river’s edge to regroup. By the time Dwight’s boat arrived, he was immediately assaulted by three screaming girls standing on the shoreline. Indian Dave, guide-god, was slumped in his raft. A turquoise stud earring was in one ear, and a red bandana kept long strands of raven hair off a face weathered by years of river work. Indian Dave had been with the company almost as long as Papa Joe Welburn had owned it. He leaned across the water to Dwight. “We can’t find John Boy!” His eyes were wide and his black eyebrows knitted together to make a deep V across his forehead.

“Sally! Where’s Sally? We can’t find Sally!” The three frantic girls splashed into the water toward Dwight’s boat. Guides and other rafters abandoned their boats to gather on the shore, and one team hauled in the now empty raft. Shouts of “John Boy!” and “Sally!” echoed throughout the canyon.

Dwight jumped out of his raft and hurried to John Boy’s boat. He opened the black waterproof Pelican box containing the med kit and pulled out a cell phone. “Everyone please keep looking, but do not leave the immediate area. Guides!” Dwight’s firm voice temporarily silenced the customers, but the shouting resumed as soon as he led the guides into a clump of trees. He needed to get his people organized. John and Sally Miller could only be downriver. But a nagging dread warned him that they weren’t. He pushed that grim thought from his mind, forcing himself to deal with the present. They would search here now and then start back downriver. He had to get the rest of the trip home.

“Moose!” Dwight addressed a bull of a man with a large beard-covered face. “I want you to account for every raft and the number of its customers. Big Ray!” A heavyset teen with a pimpled face and arching eyebrows stood at attention. “Take your crew and search downriver. Don’t go any farther than Greyhound Rapid—use the two-way radio to call me! Jambo!” Dwight looked at the tall, angular black man from Kenya. “I want you to walk upriver and let me know what you see.” Jambo sprinted across the narrow strip of beach sand. “Dave—you need to stay right here and deal with the rest of the customers. And as soon as we verify that we’ve lost someone, I want you to call the whitewater rescue number and then the Park Service. I’ll go see to those girls.” Indian Dave removed his bandana, allowing his long, wet hair to trail across his face, and took the cell phone as the rest of the guides scrambled along the river.

Dwight, lost in the drama of the moment, didn’t feel the pounding of his heart as he walked up to a group of shaken customers. Abruptly, three girls broke away from the group and ran to meet him. They were wet and shivering. Two were crying and one, a redhead who sported a bright green scarf around her neck, confronted him.

“We can’t find Sally,” she cried. “Why can’t we find Sally? Where could she be?”

Dwight felt a stab in his chest. He didn’t want to answer that question just yet. He really didn’t know where Sally was. But he had his suspicions and, for now, he definitely wanted to keep them to himself.

“The guide’s gone too!” one of the crying girls wailed. “It’s like they just disappeared!”

“We’ll find them,” Dwight said, mustering false confidence. “They might be on the other side of the river.” He was just hoping out loud. He knew they weren’t there because, if they were, John Boy would have found some way to get their attention. Out on the river another group of rafts breezed through Double Z Rapid with whoops and howls. He watched somberly as the rafters all high-fived their paddles together at the end of the rapid and continued down the river. Now it was obvious to him that John Boy and Sally were nowhere in sight or they would have been picked up by the passing river trip.

Dwight’s radio coughed, blaring to life with a garbled message from Big Ray. They were sitting in an eddy on river-right just above Hook 99. They hadn’t found anyone, and would wait for the rest of the trip to catch up.

Jambo returned, winded from jumping and crawling over boulders. “There is no one up there,” he said in a strained voice. His English was as perfect as his accent was thick. “I think that maybe they are down the river.”

Dwight shook his head and Jambo frowned. “We’ve got to get the rest of this trip back to WWW,” he said. “We’re short one guide—no—two guides. I’m leaving Indian Dave here to work with river rescue. We’ll have to double up on passengers. Tie the two empty rafts to my boat and yours. We’ll float them down the river behind us.”

Then Dwight took Indian Dave aside. “Dave, I’m leaving you here with the WWW cell phone. Call rescue, police, the park—hell, call everyone you can think of who can get down here and look for those two kids! Call Kelly and let her know what happened. Tell her I’m bringing the rest of the trip home.”

Indian Dave, the hulking Cherokee who hailed from the rugged mountains of North Carolina, gave Dwight a worried look. He was shocked pale beneath his bronze skin, and his black eyes kept darting to the river. “Damn! What the hell could’ve happened to those two? Where are they?” he asked, echoing everyone’s concern.

Dwight stared into Indian Dave’s eyes and forced himself to steady his voice. “Where do you think they are?”

Indian Dave studied Dwight’s face. Then his eyes widened with a grim realization. “Oh no,” he said in a low voice. “You don’t think—”

“Yeah,” Dwight cut him off. “But don’t mention it. After all, we’re only speculating.”

“Jesus!” Indian Dave opened the cell phone and, with a final look at Dwight, began punching in numbers. “Jee-sus!” he repeated as he walked away.


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