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Xenolith, Page 14

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 9: Traceless

  Frank’s heart wanted to head the launch straight back upriver and plunge into a search. But the launch was low in petrol, and he knew that Liz and the others would be better served if he went back and organized a larger party.

  He hopped out of the boat before it could even slide to a stop on the mudflat. He slogged up the steep bank to the mission, clothes torn, face bloody. People were already aggregating for morning sick call, but Frank would be of no use to them that day. He headed straight for the rectory, where Itzel stepped out of the kitchen and started to thank him for helping her mother. She saw Frank’s condition and went silent. Frank nodded, mumbling something unintelligible as he headed for the sitting room where Father Leo kept his ham radio.

  Alejandro rushed in. Word had already spread. Alejandro knew the gist of what had happened. “No worry, Doctor Frank. We will find them. I am sure.”

  Frank fumbled with the unfamiliar radio gear, but Alejandro helped him contact the constabulary in San Ignacio which promised to send out a team that morning. Alejandro handled sick call that morning as Frank awaited their arrival, coming to Frank like a supplicant to a semi-comatose oracle for wisdom on issues from ingrown toenails to runny tummies.

  When the constables arrived, Frank met them at the landing. They asked a few questions, then promptly slapped cuffs on Frank on suspicion of three counts of murder.

  “What? This is ridiculous,” said Frank, flabbergasted. “Who said they were dead? I just said they’re missing.”

  The constables were friendly enough about it. The senior of the two, with a receding pate and a tie much too short to traverse his paunch tried to reassure him.

  “Oh, please don’t take it personal, sir. Just a routine precaution for domestic abuse cases. We had one gentleman run off on us last year so the protocols were changed. This way everything’s kept nice and tidy till we figure things out.”

  “Domestic abuse? What the hell are you talking about?”

  “A technicality,” said the other taller, leaner, constable. “In the books, it’s how we classify a missing wife. Please, get in the boat.”

  “We’re going upriver, I hope.”

  “San Ignacio,” said the senior constable.

  “Oh, come on! At least let me help with the search,” Frank pleaded.

  “Won’t be us doing the searching,” said the tall one. “We’re just here to validate the need. We’ll call it in, but searches are a provincial matter per se.”

  With Frank in the boat, they proceeded to track down the launch operator and his spotter, whom they intercepted ferrying some market goers from Rio Frio to another river town. More questions led to two more sets of cuffs and soon there were three persons of interest in the boat, the others taken in on suspicion of conspiracy.

  Frank used his one free call to notify Liz’s divorced mother. Shocked initially, she quickly found an optimistic angle, and assured Frank that everything would turn out fine. Liz would just end up just having a little more adventure than she bargained for. The stories she would tell at get-togethers! But that was just momspeak. Clearly, from the warble in her voice, she was much less certain than her words.

  The search didn’t commence till the next day. Frank grilled the jailers monitoring the radio on its progress, gathering that it had started in dribs and drabs, picking up when the diocese organized several boatloads of volunteers from the local parishes.

  Frank stayed with the boatmen in a cozy holding pen in San Ignacio for one more day. When further interviews at the mission and the initial search failed to conjure any evidence of culpability or motive, they were released.

  As soon as he got out, Frank followed up with Liz’s parents on the progress of the search, though he didn’t tell them all the circumstances of his situation. Somehow, they had already gotten wind that he had been in custody and suddenly Frank’s communications with them became intolerably awkward.

  Liz’s mother wouldn’t even speak to him anymore. Her gravely ill father almost expired on the phone, apoplectic with accusations.

  “What do you mean you haven’t been out looking for her yet? This is my daughter. Your wife. I never approved of her going to Belize. I entrusted her in your care.”

  “I know, dad, but I couldn’t—”

  “Dad? Don’t call me dad. I’m not your father.” He lost his voice in a fit of coughing. Liz’s oldest sister took the phone. Carol, at least, gave him the benefit of the doubt, though she sounded no less distraught.

  “Roger and I are flying down to Belize City tomorrow to help find her,” she said. “Can you pick us up at the airport?”

  “I … I’ll be upriver,” said Frank, anxious at the prospect of yet another delay in his participating in the search. “You do realize there’s no road to Rio Frio?”

  Silence. “That’s fine, Frank. If you don’t want to help us, we can find our own way. We have a right to be there, you know. She’s our sister. You can’t keep us away!”

  “Listen. I’m not keeping anyone away. I want to find her just as much as you do.”

  “But we heard you haven’t even been out yet looking.”

  “I couldn’t.”

  “Whatever, Frank.” She hung up.

  Frank didn’t bother to stop by Rio Frio or the mission after he left San Ignacio. The clinic was now in Alejandro’s hands whether he wanted it or not.

  Frank immersed himself in the search, spending the next three days combing hundreds of hectares of forest where Liz and Father Leo might have possibly wandered, learning how easy it was to get lost when every over vegetated hill and dell looked the same as the next. At night, he camped with a few of the hardier volunteers on the bank of the Macal in a clearing hacked from the jungle.

  Two days later, Carol and her brother Roger showed up looking a bit dazed. They greeted him with restrained hugs and handshakes. They obviously blamed him for what had happened and he didn’t try to dissuade them. He didn’t get to see them much. When he returned that night to the riverbank, they had already retreated to Rio Frio. In the morning he was out searching before they had arrived back.

  No one ever did find a trace of Liz or Father Leo or their guide: a young man named Raoul. A thunderstorm right off the bat had erased all sign of their footprints, as well as any blood that might have dripped on leaves. No one found as much as an eyelash, not a thread, no bones, no jaguar scat with shreds of sock. No white-lipped peccaries. No drug runners. No signs of unusual activity other than the oddly barren quarry that had been their destination.

  In the end, long after Carol and Roger had returned home, and the flow of volunteers had ceased, only Frank remained to meet Liz’s father at the clearing. With patchwork, chemo-thinned hair and a clanking oxygen tank feeding his one remaining lung, he hobbled off a launch, determined to pay homage to Liz with a bouquet of sweet peas. Even he now acknowledged the hopelessness of finding her, and in Frank’s gaunt face and haunted eyes, accepted Frank’s due diligence in searching for his daughter, though he would never forgive Frank for bringing Liz to Belize. Only then did Frank feel that the time to give up the search had come.