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Chapter 11: Searching
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Friday, January 3, 7:00 A.M.
Mark Marlow slumped behind a littered desk in the time office, completely drained physically as well as mentally. An up-all-night sourness fouled his mouth, his stomach churned with countless cups of black coffee on top of hastily-chomped sandwiches, and a high anxiety level made his blood pressure sing in his ears. He rubbed the black stubble along his jaw line and stared bleakly at the search coordinator seated on the other side of the desk.
Hank Grant had worked at Walnut Valley Colony for 25 years and for the past 15 had served as farm manager, back when the residents had been capable of milking cows and doing other light farm chores. In this capacity he supervised the overall farming operation as well as general maintenance of the grounds. No one knew the topographical features of Walnut Valley's rolling back campus better than Hank. On those few occasions when a resident of Walnut Valley was unaccounted for, Hank had been directly instrumental in finding the missing lamb and returning him or her to the fold in less than an hour.
But not this time. Not Jackie Dark.
In all his experience in coordinating searches he had never had to cope with the deadly combination of driving snow, sub-zero temperatures, and winter darkness. He had never failed before. Now he had.
The snow had stopped about ten last night and the wind dropped off to minor gusts. The temperature, however, had taken over where the snow and wind left off as Old Man Winter continued his January assault on the hill country of North Jersey. By midnight, most mercury watchers were reporting minus figures of up to ten.
The lower 30 acres of Walnut Valley's sprawling holdings were completely enclosed in a well-maintained chain-link fence. Dr. Kimberly had long ago confessed to a nagging fear that some day a resident might wander far enough into the hills to be lost permanently. So, at significant taxpayer expense, and in spite of considerable foot-dragging in Trenton, the fence had been erected. The area inside the 30-acre compound, however, was left in a relatively natural state with only a few hiking trails and picnic areas developed for use by groups of closely-supervised residents.
During the night the scope of the search had been extended to include every square foot of campus inside the perimeter of the fence. Hour after hour the exhausted searchers had waded through deep snow. Every nook, every cranny, every bit of shelter was carefully scrutinized. And by seven in the morning, the snowmobiles, four-wheel drives, and trampling feet had not left a sliver of unblemished snow.
Although the search had proven fruitless, the searchers deserved high marks for effort and attitude. By midnight, the original group had grown to a small army almost 1000 strong. While a skeleton night shift was maintained in the cottages and heat plant, employees from all classifications and all three shifts had turned out to help find Jackie Dark. Many employees brought along family members, friends, and neighbors. In addition, a large contingent of volunteers from the surrounding communities had offered to lend a hand.
Harold Carson, the food service supervisor, made a major contribution to the search effort without ever leaving his kitchens. All night long he and the cooks maintained a steady flow of coffee, soup, and sandwiches as the weary and numb searchers took short breaks in the staff cafeteria.
And as the outdoor search continued hour after hour, small teams headed by security men with grand-master keys checked every inch of interior space at the Walnut Valley Colony. Starting with the 26 cottages, they eventually fanned out to check everything from the pharmacy to the hog parlor.
Now it was seven in the morning, over thirteen hours after Jackie Dark was first reported missing. The total result of all search efforts was zero.
Hank Grant raised his head and said tonelessly, "I think we're licked, Mark. I really do. I never though I'd say what I'm gonna say, but truth is, I don't think we're gonna find him alive. No sense going on with it. Least not the way we have been doing. What do you think?"
Mark had already arrived at the same conclusion. "Think you're right, Hank, and I don't like it any better than you do. I just can't see how it happened. Dead or alive, we should have found him by now." He had choked on the "dead or alive" phrase and now rose and crossed to the coffee urn for an unwanted umpteenth cup of coffee.
Back in his chair again, Mark stared at the steam rising from the untouched coffee before continuing. "I talked to Dr. Kimberly on the phone about 45 minutes ago. She suggested we switch from emergency to normal operations with the beginning of the 7:00 A.M. shift. She did ask that I confirm that decision with Dr. King in Trenton so I called him right after I got finished with the Florida call. King agreed that we should return to normal operations but suggested that we keep a skeleton search crew on the job through the daylight hours today."
The taciturn farm manager fished in a large parka pocket for a fresh package of Red Man. "That idea of keeping a small search party on duty today sounds good to me. Last night I counted ten snowmobiles that belong to guys working for me on the farm and grounds crew. Why don't we keep those 10 sleds moving all day, two men to a sled?"
Both men nurtured a silent hope that the brilliant winter sun might disclose something missed during the night search. Not likely, though, Mark thought. After it stopped snowing, the moon had shone brightly on the white landscape. In addition there had been dozens of headlights, spot lights, and flashlights playing over every inch the searchers covered. No, not likely that anything or anyone would be seen today which was missed last night.
With both the superintendent and the director of cottage life unavailable for easy consultation, Mark wasn't sure what the chain of command should be. Technically his Administrator-on-Duty shift had ended at 11:30 last night. During the search he had continued to work closely with Hank while a senior nurse who normally worked third shift had kept tabs on the in-cottage routines.
Now, though, it was time for the AM AOD to take over and Mark was more than ready to let someone else have the wheel. "Hank, have you seen Riley around lately? He's AOD today and really should be involved in making some of these decisions. As Mark finished speaking a tall, stooped figure entered the room, a meerschaum drooping from his mouth.
"Morning, Dr. Riley. You look like I feel."
"Wouldn't be surprised if we all look and feel just about the same," the genial director of psychology remarked dryly. "What's the situation now?"
Quickly Mark and Hank briefed Dr. Bartholomew Riley on the plan to return to normal operations and maintain a skeleton search party during the daylight hours. The psychologist listened carefully, nodding and puffing. At the moment, Mark couldn't think of anyone on staff he'd rather have relieve him, especially with a press conference coming up at ten. "I don't know if you've heard, Dr. Riley, but Trenton has authorized us to make a statement to the press this morning. I told Dr. King you'd be the AOD and he said he felt comfortable with you handling it. Might say I do, too."
Press conference, huh? Too bad Walnut Valley had to get on the map at the expense of poor Jackie. Who's coming, Mark? Do you know?"
"Understand it will be some regional AP and UPI people and a few local papers. Nothing that big."
"Fine. Shouldn't be any problem. Now why don't you two gentlemen get some rest.? Riley suggested with a touch of fatherliness. "I've already had my nap so now it's your turn."
Hank grunted, zipped up his parka, and said he'd be sacked out in one of the guest rooms up on third floor as soon as he'd organized the daytime search party.
"I'll be doing something similar on my office settee soon as I take care of a couple items. Call me if you need me." Slinging his snowmobile suit over his shoulder, Mark left the time office and trudged up the stairs to the main floor. He took his snowmobile suit out to the parking lot and stowed the bulky outfit in the Sprint's hatch. Then he retrieved his suitcase from the back seat.
Back inside, he stepped into the men's room for a much-needed session with his razor and toothbrush. Then he headed for his office. It smelled like stale smoke, thanks to yesterday's session with the guy from the Atlantic City Press. A note beside Evelyn's typewriter stated she was exhausted from an all-night shift in the staff cafeteria and had gone home for some rest. Mark dropped the note in the waste basket, closed the hall door, turned out the light, and stepped into his own office. As he dropped onto the office settee, he saw it was 7:50 A.M. He didn't have another conscious thought until the phone rang three hours later.
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