Welcome to the homepage of Phantom and Fury: A search and rescue mystery set in North Cascades National Park.
I’ll be participating in National Novel Writing Month, so every day in November I’ll be working on this mystery novel. Check out the synopsis and the first chapter below!
Phantom and Fury Synopsis:
A man goes missing while on a photography climb in the Pickets Range of North Cascades National Park. The local fire chief of the Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade refuses to give up the search. The Skagit County Sheriff suspects foul-play and begins an investigation.
The locals suspect strange things. There are whispers and rumors about the true involvement of the Fire Chief and the Sheriff. No one can trust a journalist. He was trouble from the moment he came…
As the search extends past the point of probable rescue, secrets from the past reveal the lost man’s connections to the town. After neighboring agencies call off the search, the chief remains the last searcher, and his solo mission will take every skill he has if he is to find the lost man, or even have a chance himself of returning home alive.
On a typical North Cascades bushwhack, Wilson Ford untangles himself from the tree trunks and branches of dense Slide Alder. He imagines the trees choking him. Moments on this trek the forest was so thick, he could not see the sky, his feet couldn’t touch the ground, and he lost track of which way was up. It felt like tumbling in a massive wave, unaware of which way to swim to get air. He sees the light beyond the trees, and even the occasional jagged tooth of a peak, part of the ridge-line of the Northern Pickets Mountain range. Soon, he hopes, he’ll exit this damned forest and enter the wide-open vistas of alpine fields. He wipes his brow with a buff and pushes harder uphill.
The wilderness around him threatens with constant reminders that he is not natural here. He does not belong. The noises around him instill a sort of terror. He assuages his fear with grand thoughts of adventure. On his cellphone, he checks his GPS, and discovers that he’s wandered far off track. He climbs toward Luna Col with added motivation that hovers around him and propels him to push faster. The mosquitos are rabid. When he moves, the bites come in random pricks, but the moment he stops, mosquitoes the size of quarters descend on him with their bloodthirsty fangs.
It’s a humid August day, and there is no wind. Claustrophobia sets on him like the sweltering layer of sweat, Deet, and sunscreen that seals his skin from the atmosphere. The impulse to get out of this hellhole teeters on the verge between necessity and survival. He asks himself, why am I here, alone?
He asks himself, Why am I here alone?
Although he’s come all the way out here in attempts to leave the danger behind, he knows that he has gotten in over his head. The troubles he’s stuck into have triangulated, and now he has nowhere to run. Nowhere but here, one of the most remote places in the continental United States.
He hasn’t seen a soul out here for a few days, but that doesn’t shake the feeling that someone is following him. Four days in the backcountry, and random noises behind him cause his heart to lurch and halt. There’s little probability that someone is tracking him, but there’s still a chance, even though he keeps getting lost himself. Would they try to kill me? How deep does it go?
Being a journalist has risks, he’s always accepted that, but something about this small town of Newhalem has gotten under his skin. His first impression was that the town resembled something from a horror film, like the setting of a murder mystery, or some cult massacre, but those impressions faded when he became a regular part of the town. He made friends. He was accepted. Then he started researching this story. He had no idea that such an innocuous topic could prove so volatile or implicate so many people.
She warned that this story is about much more than this town
When the sheriff told him he to be cautious, he had stepped into precarious territory, he never thought that she was correct. He thought she was paranoid, that she cared too much about her job title, or that she just didn’t understand what he was doing. She warned that this story is about much more than this town, that it extends all the way to the Emerald City of Seattle, and all the power brokers that rule that shining city.
For all his attempts to stave off the fear that Sheriff Rochelle Washington instilled in him, the fear had taken hold. Every passing glance from the townsfolk stirred speculation from him. He saw their sideward stares, heard their whispers when he passed by. It’s true, he presented himself as a landscape and wildlife photographer when he had first arrived, but in fact had a thriving career as an investigative journalist. When they found that out, they were rightfully angry, untrusting even, but their suspicion had a nefarious intensity that didn’t seem commensurate with his initial white lie. Because of that, he now had only a few allies, and even those were dwindling.
A large branch behind him cracks and separates. He trips forward and almost loses his grip on a tree. If it isn’t someone following him, it could just as easily be a bear, or a pack of wolves. His mind races with dangerous scenarios. A tree branch snags his heavy backpack and nearly takes it off. Freeing himself from the obstacle, he tightens the shoulder-straps, catches his breath, and continues.
If it isn’t someone following him, it could just as easily be a bear, or a pack of wolves. His mind races with dangerous scenarios.
Hazy light envelopes him as he steps out of the thicket. Boulders punctuate the landscape and rise toward towering mountaintops. Directly in front of him Luna Peak projects skyward, a monumental slab of granite, resembling a giant fin. He climbs toward the Col, the lowest gap between the peaks, and his gate of entry into the Pickets. His goal is to climb from Luna, across to Mount Fury, and then traverse the remaining peaks until he reaches Mount Challenger at the northern edge of the range. He doesn’t have a plan after that, and that fact makes him feel reckless. Can he even solo this climb? No one has documented a solo traverse of this range, and few groups have even traversed it with a crew of professionals, but Wil’s drive is propelled by more than just this objective alone.
Dustin Slattery should be be out here with him. They planned this trip for next summer, when Dustin could take time off from his job as the Fire Chief for the Newhalem/Diablo Fire Brigade. This trip could easily take three weeks, and he couldn’t afford that kind of time away this summer, since’s he is the district’s only paid employee. Wil climbs away from not only the danger he’s found himself in with the Sheriff and his story, he climbs away from his ties with Dustin.
They’ve somehow become dependent upon each other, climbing partners that have summited many of the peaks in the region, but Wil wants as much distance between them as he can get. Dustin’s words from four days ago echo off the stone cliffs and reverberate through Wil’s mind, “You’re way too exposed. If you keep going down this path, your life will be in danger.”
“You’re way too exposed. If you keep going down this path, your life will be in danger.”
The audacity of Dustin’s warning infuriates Wil, and it feels like a threat. He climbs higher and faster, working out his frustration on the rock and earth beneath his feet. They were supposed allies, but now their connection feels like is deception. How could Wil let anyone like that get close to him? All their trust had just been erased, and now, instead of a strong bond of safety—which they had built over multiple seasons of alpine climbing—there is instead silence, danger, and suspicion.
As he sweats profusely from his all-out summit push, Wil crests the Col and comes to a dizzying stop. His vision moves erratically around him, unaccustomed to views without movement. His head throbs and he drinks greedily from the hose of his water bladder.
The sun lowers to the horizon behind the shelf of mountains in front of him. Wil knows he needs to set up camp, but first, he pulls the camera off his shoulder strap, and snaps pictures of the quickly fading alpenglow. He hears sounds behind him and scrambles quickly away from the noise. A familiar voice, angrily says, “Don’t you dare.” He turns in shock, stumbles, and disappears.
A familiar voice, angrily says, “Don’t you dare.”
Moments later, the sunset shades of color drain from the sky. All is quiet on the ridge-line. Not a sound, except the soft scamper of distant marmots, scurrying about for their dinner. A man had just stood, a silhouette of a body in a sea of mountain peaks, but now only a void is seen. Wilson Ford has vanished.
The town of Newhalem, Washington, sits at the gates of the Diablo Dam. It’s the second of three dams that makes hydroelectric power from the Skagit River and sends it away to the city of Seattle over a hundred miles to the south. The first of the three dams is the Gorge, then Diablo, and the last is the Ross Lake Dam. It’s a company town, run by and created for Seattle City Light.
Situated at the base of a deep ravine between massive walls of mountain, the town rests on the first part of a large plateau that extends westward. Forests of pine climb the steep ledges and spread out across the mountain meadows. Peaks enclose the town and give it a secure feeling. The constant thrush of the Diablo dam sets the ambiance of white noise. But the small town rarely has a resident that walks across it’s few sidewalks.
During the height of summer, a steady stream of tourists file through the small town at an annoying twenty-five miles an hour, a sharp decrease from their previous speed of sixty while flying up Highway 20 toward North Cascades National Park. For many people, this town represents the last obstacle before entrance into the greater wilderness of the park. The absence of people in the town adds a creepy quality, one that instills curiosity and speculation.
The absence of people in the town adds a creepy quality, one that instills curiosity and speculation.
To the west of the town, isolated in a dense forest just off the highway, is a National Park Visitors Center. This is the main attraction of Newhalem, one that garners tens of thousands of visitors every year. Yet the visitor center is removed from the town itself and feels a town all its own.
Residents of Newhalem are exclusively employees of Seattle City Light, and work on dam maintenance and upkeep. The town’s infrastructure consists of a General Store and a Fire Brigade, with a few rows of staff housing that consists of single-story, war box style construction. There is no doctor or school, no restaurant or community hall. The residents drive to the nearby town of Concrete for all their daily needs, thirty-two miles to the west. Even the school bus must make the forty-minute trip every day. The town is quiet, and that’s how the community wants to keep it.
At his one-man office at the Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade, Chief Dustin Slattery paces back and forth. The building is small, along with the office, it has a cramped bedroom, bathrrom, and small kitchen. It mostly exists for the garage which houses a fire engine and an ambulance, which are staffed by volunteers. The Fire Chief’s office sits at the front door, and although he paces around it, there isn’t much space for him to move. He drags his feet in circles, over the worn patterns of linoleum.
Frustrated, he stops, turns, and picks up the landline. He calls Ross Lake Resort.
“Can I help you?”
I’m looking for the journalist Wilson Ford.
“Yes, I’m looking for the journalist Wilson Ford. Did he hire a water taxi to get dropped off in the backcountry? Had anyone there seen him?
“I don’t know a Wilson Ford, so I couldn’t tell you—”
“Look here kid, give the phone to Nancy. This is Fire Chief Slattery.”
The young man coughs and stumbles. A muffled noise signifies that he put the phone down on the counter. Soon, a spritely voice comes across the receiver.
“Dustin, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Hi Nance, it’s great to hear your voice. I’m on serious business here. You remember that journalist? The one that covered the Goodell Creek Fire?”
“Yes, I do. What’s the matter Chief?”
“I think he’s gone missing.”
“I think he’s gone missing.”
“I see,” she ponders and pauses, “How can I help you with that?”
“Have you seen him? Did the water taxi drop him off in the back country?”
“I don’t believe so. Let me look in the record book.”
She rummages through an old green hardcover, through the past few days of reservations. “No, Dustin, there’s nothing here with Ford’s name on it. I can ask around though, see if any of the crew has seen him.”
“Thanks, Nancy. I’ve got to go.”
“I hope you find him. Will you start a rescue mission?”
“I’m not sure, but I’ll let you know. Thanks.”
The Chief hangs up the phone, his palms sweaty and his shirt wet in the pits and lower back. Something isn’t right. He knows it.
Something isn’t right. He knows it.
He last saw Wilson Ford five days ago. The night was dark and misty. Trees around his house on the Skagit River had a menacing look about them, lit only by the front porch light of his two-bedroom rambler. Wil was angry. He rushed toward his Sprinter van, parked in the large parking lot in front of the house. The Chief followed, almost chasing him from the front door to the back double doors of the van.
“Don’t you dare,” Chief Dustin seethed at Wil.
Wil turned, posturing to fight, fists clenched, “What. Don’t you dare what?”
The two men at a stand-off, in the dark Cascadian night.
Moments later, the van skidded out of the gravel driveway. That was the last time Chief Dustin saw Wilson Ford.
That was the last time Chief Dustin saw Wilson Ford.
Months prior, they planned to climb Mount Triumph the following day. But Wil never showed up at Thorton Lakes trailhead where Chief Dustin waited for six hours with his climbing pack at the ready. Every car that came, every new hiker, was another disappointment, adding fuel to the growing fear that something was wrong. After waiting all day, he decided to go back to the fire station and see if Wil was waiting there.
But there wasn’t a soul around the station, or in the whole town. The isolation he felt warned him that Wil was nowhere near here. He was gone. When Dustin got back to his rambler that night, he half-hoped that Wil would be there with some excuse as to why he missed the climb. His house was dark when he arrived. Not even the sallow porch light was lit. The quiet rush of the Skagit River was all that he heard.
Wil was nowhere near here. He was gone.
The days since had proven more and more fearful. Chief Dustin decides he cannot wait anymore. Four full days is too much. He can’t let the sun set on the fourth day without doing something. So as the sky turns toward twilight, he drives from one trailhead to the next, all along Highway 20, from Thorton Lakes to Rainy Pass trailheads, and not one of those dirt lots has Wil’s Sprinter Van in it. Defeated and beginning to worry that Wil is truly lost, Dustin drives westward in the dark, back toward his home on the river.
He has to start a Search and Rescue mission, but he doesn’t have any reasonable evidence to support such a move. The rescue agencies, and the whole town, will ask about specifics. How does he know that Wilson Ford is missing? Chief Dustin knows that he’ll have to come up with some way of explaining this. What will he say? The thought covers him in a fresh coat of sweat. Suddenly realizing he’s thirsty and hasn’t drunk all day, he reaches for his sport water bottle, and gives it a dry suck. Only a few drops of water wet his dry tongue.
He has to start a Search and Rescue mission, but he doesn’t have any reasonable evidence to support such a move.
The sign for the Environmental Learning Center flashes in his headlights, and he realizes that he overlooked the trailheads at the school’s large parking lots. He’ll check there before he goes home and calls the Sheriff. He needs time to come up with an alibi anyway.
His truck drives across Diablo dam, down a short, paved road, and his headlights project light across the timber architecture of the Learning Center. When he turns right to drive in front of the building, he sees it. There, in the dim light of the furthest lot is Wil’s van. He’s sure of it. He steps on the gas pedal, drives directly at the side door, and when he reaches the vehicle, he slams on his breaks and jumps from his truck. With purpose, he pounds on the windows of the van, hoping to wake Wil from his slumber. No response. No sound.
There in the dim light of the furthest lot is Wil’s van.
Dustin walks around the van and checks every door, trying to get in. They’re all locked. For a moment he contemplates something. He walks to his truck, opens the canopy, pulls out a Halligan tool, and uses it to smash the window out of the passenger side door of Wil’s van.
He reaches into the window, unlocks the doors, and lets himself in through the rolling side door. There’s an intensity to his movements, a stark desperation. The silhouette of Dustin ransacks the van, lit by his own truck’s headlights. Manic movements continue for some time. Suddenly, Dustin stops. He turns to sit on the steps of the rolling door and tries to catch his breath. In his hands lies a manila envelope, labeled with the words, SKAGIT VALLEY SHERIFF ROCHELLE WASHINGTON.
All his fears, the concerns he shared with Wil, the danger he knew that Wil had gotten himself into, the peril that Wil had gotten them both into, now came flooding back as he sat on the steps, frozen. What should he do with this envelope? He can’t take it to the authorities. She is the authority. What was Wil even going to do with this? With so many possible scenarios to consider, it took Chief Dustin a while to come to the understanding that he didn’t even know what the contents of the envelope really were. What in this envelope could be so important that Wil would put them all at such great risk? And what did Sheriff Washington have to do with it?
What in this envelope could be so important that Wil would put them all at such great risk?
Concrete, Washington, sits on the northern banks of the Skagit River, due west of Newhalem, with the small town of Marblemount situated between the two. Unlike the company town of Newhalem, Concrete thrives with all the amenities a rural township can accommodate. A massive concrete silo stands at the town-center and is a representation of the town’s namesake and history. Although the concrete plant was retired in 1967, the town kept the silo as a symbol and turned it into a small park for children to play in.
A massive concrete silo stands at the town-center and is a representation of the town’s namesake and history.
Next to the mammoth silo, a shallow dam sits at the mouth of the Baker River. Smooth sheets of water pour over the wall and fall toward the Skagit. Further up the river stands a 293-foot hydro-electric dam that was built in 1925, at that time it was the largest in the entire world. The water from the river comes from Lake Shannon just north behind the dam, and from the greater Baker Lake further north. The water melts from the glaciers of the massive volcano, Mount Baker, northeast as the eagle flies.
While Baker Lake represents a lucrative tourist attraction for the town of Concrete, the only way for people from the town to visit the iconic vistas of the volcano is to walk into deep wildnerness from the northern edge of Baker Lake, or to drive two hours in a large circle, clockwise around a compass rose, west, north, east, then finally south into the northern aspect of the mountain.
This doesn’t hamper the tourism of Concrete, because it stands as one of the last towns with full services before one enters North Cascades National Park. The town has medical services, schools, fuel stations, multiple grocery stores, motels, a bakery, a small airport, and even a Saturday farmer’s market when the weather cooperates. Fewer than one-thousand people reside in this mountain town.
Made famous by the writer Tobias Wolf in his novel, This Boy’s Life, the town of Concrete has a rich character that many tourists gravitate too, especially after a feature film was shot there with the Hollywood star power of Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Ellen Barkin. For a brief time in the early 90’s, the town of Concrete shifted back four decades and became a vision of 1950’s small-town America.
For a brief time in the early 90’s, the town of Concrete shifted back four decades and became a vision of 1950’s small-town America
The bustle and energy of that creative project has waned in recent years, turning into a new era of outdoor adventure. For many decades, North Cascades National Park was one of the least visited parks in the country. But every year, the town of Concrete sees more waves of outdoor enthusiasts drive through their town. Lines of RV’s, camper vans, trucks, and out of state cars congest the two-lane Highway 20 during the height of the summer months.
On Main Street, just past the bakery, the Town Hall building sits in the shadow of the much larger Post Office. Town Hall has alternated use between Senior center, library, community hall, and its current use as host to the Skagit County Sheriff’s office. The East Precinct consists of six deputies led by one Sheriff, Rochelle Washington. It’s her job to keep the citizens of Concrete safe and at peace in this rural setting. The six other deputies spread out across the vast district, monitoring the highways and backroads of the region.
Rochelle Washington was born and raised in this locale. Her father, a dam worker, and her mother, a member of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, raised her in this very town. While her abilities could have landed her careers in any of the West Coast’s largest cities, she felt an innate pull to stay here, at home in her roots and the roots of her ancestors.
she felt an innate pull to stay here, at home in her roots and the roots of her ancestors.
Life here had not always been simple. The daughter of a white man and a native woman proved a tension all its own. She was both a daughter of the community, and an outsider, depending on which perspective you were looking from, and at what time. There were not many who carried the bloodlines of both communities that live here. While there were only about eight-hundred residents of Concrete, there were just over five-hundred members of the tribe, and they were spread out across the whole region. To be a part of both communities felt, at times, an impossible task, and at others, a true benefit to her profession. Sheriff Rochelle Washington managed these intricacies with a grace and strength that garnered the respect of the townsfolk.
At the modest desk of her cubicle-portioned office, she reviewed the latest budget deficits. She’ll have to cut costs somewhere, but she can’t think of how. Her mind wanders to the most pressing issue she faces, her connection with journalist Wilson Ford. Where is he? Perplexed by the fact that he didn’t show up to the meeting point yesterday, she ponders his intentions. Was he using her? Had he been pressured to drop the story? Or worse, was he missing?
Was he using her? Had he been pressured to drop the story? Or worse, was he missing?
She paces about her small cubicle. Something is wrong. She’s sure of it. The story he had uncovered, the implications it has on the town and every individual here, covers her in a fearful. The hair on her neck stands electrified by it. Fear for her job, fear for her family, and fear for Wilson Ford. A feeling, stark and true, jolts her body. He’s missing. She’s sure of it. He would have met her yesterday if he could. Nothing would have stopped him. He had the documentation. He swore it. He was going to show her.
With a newfound urgency, she grabs her jacket and rushes out of the precinct. Unsure of where to start, she drives east, through Marblemount and toward Newhalem. She’ll stop at the General Store there, ask them if anyone had seen the journalist. He had set up his camp, parked his van near there, and was one of the few regular patrons of the General Store.
The bells rings on the glass double door as she enters the small establishment. Dorothy extends a welcoming wave and calls out, “Howdy there, Miss Sheriff. Always a pleasure to see your smiling face around these parts.”
Rochelle cringes at the term Miss Sheriff, a patronizing term often used to describe her youthful authority. It’s true, at thirty-three, she’s the youngest Sheriff in the county’s history, but she’s worked hard for that distinction, and bristles at the fact that some citizens can’t recognize the work she’s done.
“Hiya Dorothy, nice to see you too. I just had a quick question. Have you seen the journalist around here recently?”
“Have you seen the journalist around here recently?”
Dorothy eyes her and tilts her head. She recalls the time a few weeks ago where she witnessed the Sheriff and the journalist in some sort of spat out front of the store. We they lovers, she pondered. Dorothy was just on her smoke break, wasn’t trying to meddle, but she couldn’t help but notice the tension between the two.
“The journalist. You mean Wil?”
Sheriff Rochelle nods and nudges her face forward, signifying she wants to hear more.”
Slowly, Dorothy gives her the information. “He came in about four days ago, in the morning. Stocked up on a bunch of food. Didn’t say much.”
“Was he headed somewhere?”
“The wilderness, as usual. Who knows where. Those boys just can’t help themselves.”
“Did he say anything, anything at all?”
“Uhhh, it’s hard to recall, Miss.”
“Eh, he might have mentioned Diablo. Or were we talking about the devil?” She laughs at her own joke and itches her hip. “Yup, definitely the devil.”
“Thanks, Dorothy,” Sheriff Rochelle quips as she moves toward the exit. “If you see him, be sure to call me.”
“If you see him, be sure to call me.”
“Absolutely Miss, consider it a pact.”
The bell jingles as the Sheriff hurries to her Patrol truck. Diablo is as good a place to start searching as any. Twilight has turned to darkness as she makes her way to Diablo Dam. In attempts to assure herself, she quietly promises to search for Wil until she finds him. She’s the only one who knows he’s even missing.
Across the dam and toward the Environmental Learning Center, she drives with purpose into the dark forest. At the far end of the parking lot, she notices headlights and shadows. Manic movement, projections of shadows flicker across the canopy above. The truck is red. Is that a fire department vehicle she sees? It is, and, in front of the truck is a van, Wilson Ford’s van.
She pulls up slowly to the scene, her headlights further illuminating the strange sequence of events. A person turns and sits down on the steps of the van. He holds a manila envelope in his hands. She puts the patrol car in park as the man looks up at her. It’s Fire Chief Slattery, and he looks guilty.
“Dustin,” she says upon exiting the truck, her hands on the gun in her left hip holster. “What’s going on here?”
“What’s going on here?”
He looks at her, stunned, and doesn’t say a word.
“Are you in trouble? Where’s Wilson Ford?”
“How do you know that?”
His face clenches, as if in pain, as he tries to find the words, the excuses.
“Dustin,” her voice is unforgiving.
“I just know. Look, I can’t explain how. He’s just missing. I found his van here and thought he might be inside. I pounded on the windows but didn’t hear a sound. He could be dead. So, I broke the windows to get in. But he’s not here.”
“And what is that in your hands?” She looks incredulously at him, suspicious of his story and the faltering way in which he tells it.
“I don’t know. I just found it.”
She walks over to him, and slowly takes the envelope out of his hands. He doesn’t fight her, simply relinquishes it to her custody.
“Do you know what’s in it?” He says like an accusation. It touches a nerve. “It has your name on it.”
“It has your name on it.”
Now it’s her turn to not respond. Somehow, Chief Dustin’s statement makes them both complicit in this scene. They both have something to lose, and although neither of them knows the full extent of it, they both know they must cooperate with each other in order to navigate this precarious unknown that they’ve found themselves in.
“I can only tell you this,” the Sheriff starts, each word, unsteady and unsure, “Wilson Ford was in over his head. This is information he uncovered that could be the reason why he’s missing.”
“So you agree. He’s missing.”
“I’m going to start a search and rescue mission. Something isn’t right here, and we need to find him.”
Chief Dustin’s shoulders lower, the tension releases with the knowledge that there will be help for Wil. There is a chance now, a chance that he could be found.
Sheriff Rochelle senses that something nefarious happening. None of this makes any sense, and Chief Dustin’s involvement only complicates the story. What does he have to do with Wilson Ford’s investigation? What worries her more than that though, is that he suspects her, and he knows that she’s involved somehow. She won’t be able to rationalize her involvement if the news gets out. Her career is on the line, and the only way to fix this situation is to find the journalist Wilson Ford.
Her career is on the line, and the only way to fix this situation is to find the journalist Wilson Ford.
I’m looking for readers to give feedback on the first draft, to ready this book for publication. If you’re interested in reading more, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you the next chapters!
And follow Out There With Lance to get updates.