Where to begin solving the mystery of a young woman’s utterly inexplicable disappearance at the base of a cliff in the Sandia Mountains? Josh began with the only person who was intimately connected to both Sandra and himself: her mother.

The bitter old woman wasn’t the easiest interlocutor in the world. “When Sandra was alive, she was all I had,” she told Josh after she grudgingly accepted his invitation to meet for a cup fo coffee at the neighborhood Starbucks. “Now that she’s dead I don’t have any interest in sharing her memory with the man who was responsible for her death.”

“I didn’t kill her! I loved her. I worshipped her. Besides, we don’t even know that she’s dead. She might be. But if so, where’s her body, how did she die, why did she die, why were her clothes and boots sitting there in a neat pile in a clearing as if to be as obvious as possible? None of it makes any sense? All we’ve got is questions and no answers.”

“No matter what’s happened to her it’s your fault. You got her walking in those mountains. If you hadn’t done that, she wouldn’t have gone there. And if she hadn’t gone there, she’d still be alive. You killed her.”

For a moment, her logic seemed irrefutable. But like a lot of apparent logic, it was no such thing. “That’s nonsense,” Josh whispered to her. He repeated, “We don’t know that she’s dead. Until I see her body, I won’t believe it.” He whispered because otherwise he would’ve screamed, right there in the middle of the crowded coffeehouse with all the nice couples sipping their fancy coffees and nibbling on their sugared pastries. He would’ve yelled in the face of this sturdy, gray-haired, near-hysterical woman.

He remained silent a long time while he regained control of his voice before saying with all the calm at his command, “You want your daughter back and I do, too.”

He paused while she absorbed his words and took a gulp from her sugared-and-creamed coffee. Then he said the two words he had come to say: “Help me.”

She looked startled. He continued, “I need your help. You don’t have to like me, but we want the same thing, to discover what happened. Please.” He said it again. “Help me. I am begging. I need clues. Tell me about the Sandra you knew. The little girl, the teenager, the young woman.”

• • •

“She grew up almost alone,” Mrs. Sanchez began. “No father, no siblings. Only me, her poor mother, and I had to work so hard. She had to be self-sufficient, and she was. She almost never cried when she was lonely or sad or even when she was hurt. Babies don’t cry much if they know it isn’t going to do them any good. Babies aren’t as dumb as a lot of folks think.”

“She told me she grew up different from other kids,” Josh said. “Even in first grade she wore cowboy boots to school. She played games with the boys and not the girls. When she got her first camera, she said it was love at first sight.”

“Yes, that’s the way she was,” Mrs. Sanchez said. “It was so cute in a little kid. All that cowboy stuff. She was a city kid. She’d never even seen a real live horse. Not then, not until she was grown. Of course, later she was riding with the best of them.”

“I remember,” Josh said, “when we were filming in Brazil, we had to get into indigenous areas where the only way was on horseback. She led the way—she was the only one of us really comfortable on a horse.”

“All her life, she was always leading the way,” Mrs. Sanchez continued. “Sometimes I tried to stop her. I thought she was taking too many chances. But she almost never listened to me. She was stubborn….”

Mrs. Sanchez abruptly broke off and started on a different tack. “You mentioned Brazil and that reminds me of something. She was different after she got back from the Amazon. I’d never seen her like that. She was usually so focused, so determined. She always seemed to know exactly what she wanted to do. Suddenly she didn’t.”

“How do you mean?’

“The only way I can put it is she seemed lost. Maybe afraid even, confused. She’d lost something. I can’t put my finger on it. But something that’d been there all her life wasn’t there any longer. Didn’t you notice it?”

“Well….I thought it was me, you know, that I had done something wrong. It was right after we got back from Brazil, when I was preoccupied with editing our documentary, that she moved out. There was a distance between us that hadn’t been there before. I thought it was me.”

“Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was something else.”

“Or someone else.”

“Josh, what about your trip to the Amazon? Did anything happen there? Anything unusual or upsetting that might explain what happened to my Sandra? Anything at all?”

“Hey, I’m supposed to be asking the questions. But, yeah, I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you mention it….”

Next Week: Part 5