Tim shaunn was lying on his belly in the dirt and scrub beneath rain-dripping pines atop a small rise near what remained of the Wells place. He adjusted the gas mask strapped on over his head, making sure it was snug as a bug in a effing rug.
He had zero desire to die from a stray whiff of the toxic fumes the federal government talking heads claimed was wafting from the mysterious sinkhole that had opened up and swallowed an entire house. Not to mention the poor, doomed souls living inside it—an FBI agent and his family, so the Oregonian said.
And, not only that, the so-called toxic fumes had stolen the lives of several of the nearest neighbors in the sparsely populated hillside community.
A handful of agents wearing tan windbreakers with red letters on the back reading TASK FORCE—and, effing interesting that no particular agency was named, not the FBI or HSA or CDC, just a generic, all-encompassing TASK FORCE—strolled the grounds alongside techs in yellow jumpsuits. A small guest cottage with broken-out windows seemed to be functioning as a command post.
Tim noted that no one was wearing a gas mask or any other kind of air filtration device. Not even the techs standing at the lip of what looked like an enormous mist-blanketed pit, various gadgets and instruments in their gloved hands.
Toxic fumes, my ass.
Tim snorted, and the tinny sound bounced off the mask’s confines and into his ears. Okay, then. No more noise while wearing this effing thing. But the thought of pulling the gas mask off and putting the harmlessness of the air to the test left him cold.
Better safe than too effing dead to be sorry.
Maybe the toxic fumes had been controlled or had ended. Maybe. But on Tim’s fave late-night radio talk show, Mike and Jill Carr Digging for the Truth!, he’d heard a darker, more chilling theory.
The government was killing witnesses to whatever had happened at the Wells/Lyons compound. Too many people near the site had suddenly gone on vacation—without bothering to tell anyone. Or had inexplicably moved, leaving a forwarding address to some faraway vacant lot.
The feds rolled their eyes and explained that some people had been contaminated by the fumes and had been shuttled to a secure location to be scrubbed clean, monitored, then released.
Like quail in front of a pump action shotgun.
Tim’s gut tied itself into hard knots. He finger-wiped rain from the gas mask’s goggles as he reminded himself why he was here risking life and liberty. Mike and Jill Carr’s slogan circled through his mind like a torch held aloft by an Olympic runner: Keep Digging for the Truth!
Americans had the right to know what was going on in their very own country and on their own Grade A USA soil, had the right to know what dirty-assed deeds their duly elected government officials were busy committing and why.
Plus . . . maybe, just maybe, Mike Carr would ask Tim to the studio and have him recount his gritty, dangerous adventure live over the airwaves to a rapt audience. Jill Carr would then declare Tim a hero and a true-blue American and plant a pink-lipped kiss of gratitude on his manly, whisker-stubbled cheek.
A dreamy sigh escaped Tim’s lips, and he caught a pungent whiff of onion and green peppers from his breakfast burrito. His stomach rumbled, wishing for another.
Later, he promised it. First a little sleuthing, a bit of James Bonding, maybe a few photos, a smooth and unseen getaway, then a tasty and well-deserved lunch. Taco Bell was the shit.
Pulling his binoculars from his olive-green knapsack, Tim raised them to his eyes. They smacked against his goggles with a dull thok. His cheeks heated even though no one had witnessed his decidedly not double-oh moment. Sweat prickling against his scalp—damned mask was effing hot!—Tim carefully rested the binoculars against the goggles and peered at the scene below. Or tried to.
He discovered he couldn’t see anything due to the bad combo of binoculars and goggles. He’d have to get closer to ground zero in order to get a better look—oh joy.
Swallowing back his fear, he stuffed the useless binoculars into the knapsack, then pulled out his Fujifilm digital camera and, with a deep breath that he quickly regretted, started belly-crawling across the rain-dampened ground.
Pale mist snaked like dragon’s breath among the wet trunks of the pines, oaks, and fir trees growing thick throughout the property. Rain misted Tim’s goggles. Exertion and rising body temperature fogged them.
Now I can’t see. Effing great.
Tim paused in his exhausting ass-and-elbows crawl to wipe the lenses of his goggles and discovered the fog was on the inside.
Jesus Christ! Does James Bond or Jason Bourne deal with shit like this? No. They do not.
Sweat trickled down Tim’s face. His breath was coming in onion-scented pants. His heart drummed a fast-paced march against his ribs. The feds weren’t wearing gas masks. The air might be perfectly fine. Or . . . they’ve had a special shot that renders them immune to the effects of the toxic fumes.
If the toxic fumes ever existed in the first place.
With his goggles fogged, Tim felt like he was trapped, his head screwed into one of those magician’s boxes. He couldn’t breathe. Fingers fumbling with the straps, Tim ripped the gas mask off his face and shoved it to the top of his sweat-soaked head.
He sucked in a deep lungful of cool, moist air thick with the smells of pine and moss and wet bark. And nearly sobbed in relief when nothing happened—but what if it’s cumulative? Effing shut up!—except the quiet intake of fresh air. He drew in another deep breath as he attempted to calm his racing heart.
Wow. Claustrophobia. Who knew?
Tim wiped sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his army camouflage shirt. As soon as his heart rate dropped into a relaxed saunter, he’d resume his crawl. But his heart never had the chance.
The sound of a round being chambered skyrocketed his heart into high orbit. Tim’s vision grayed and he felt his mouth working like a water-free goldfish’s.
“Throw your weapons away, then put your hands behind your head and interlace your fingers,” a masculine voice ordered.
Feeling faint, Tim rose to his knees and hurled his camera into the wet undergrowth. It thudded against a pine trunk. He put his trembling hands behind his head and folded his fingers together.
“That was a camera, asswipe. Toss your goddamned weapons.”
“I don’t have any,” Tim stammered through a mouth gone dry. “I’m a reporter.” Why the effing hell did you say that? His brain screamed at him. Reporters are the first to die! What was wrong with birdwatcher or nature hiker or just effing LOST?!
“That gas mask tells me that you already knew this area was off limits due to health risks,” the man said with disgust. “Typical fucking reporter.”
See? You just got us killed. Asshole.
“Up on your feet, jerkoff. Let’s go. I’m sure the AIC would love to hear your reason for being here. She needs a good laugh.”
Tim blinked. Not sure he’d heard right, but not wanting to say anything that might correct his understanding of the man’s words—no summary execution, he rose shakily to his feet.
“Can I put my hands down?” Tim asked meekly.
“No, douchebag, you can’t.”
Tim barely heard the pine needles crunching underneath the man’s shoes as he approached. His thundering heart damned near drowned out all sound—but not his thoughts.
So what happens when they find out you’re not a reporter? That you lied?
But Tim didn’t have an answer for his brain’s angry accusation. You work on the problem, he suggested.
Tim held still as the man, an agent in a tan windbreaker, dark brown cords, and hiking boots, holstered his gun, then patted him down with quick, assured slides of his hands. He grunted in satisfaction when his search turned up nothing.
“No guns, but I guess a camera could be considered a weapon in a reporter’s hands,” the agent said. His blue eyes were hard as diamonds. “And give me that.”
The strap snapped against Tim’s ear as the agent yanked the gas mask from the top of his head. Ear stinging, eyes watering, brain no longer screeching, Tim kept silent.
The agent pulled his gun free of its holster again and motioned down the hill. “This way, dickwad.”
Heart pounding out the 1812 Overture inside his chest, Tim had no choice but to accompany the gun-toting agent down through the rain-beaded grass and underbrush to the gravel driveway leading to the damaged guest cottage tucked beneath the oaks and pines, and the pit or cave yawning in the earth in front of it.
Tim thought he heard an echoing rush of water, as though a river pulsed through the pit’s dark heart. The smells of cold water and wet rock and ozone laced the air.
Jumpsuited techs and other agents refused to look at Tim, keeping their gazes fixed ahead of them as though he was a ghost. Cold dread lumped up in his belly.
Dead man walking.
He had the sickening feeling that he was going to find out firsthand, up close and oh-so-effing personal, exactly what happened to the other people who’d stumbled across this quarantined scene.
Tim’s knees jellied and he stumbled, his combat boots slipping in the gravel. A strong hand latched around his shoulder. Kept him upright.
“Keep moving,” the agent said, his voice low. “You’re the one who wanted to be here so bad.”
Square back your shoulders. James Bond your way out of this. Charm him with snappy banter, then strangle him with a bootlace.
Yeah, that’s real helpful, brain. Thanks.
But Tim decided to give the snappy banter a go since he had absolutely zip to lose. “True, but when I booked this vacation, I specifically asked for a hollow volcano hideaway, a few laser-beam toting squirrels, and absolutely no gun-toting government operatives,” he said, his mouth so dry his words clicked.
The agent regarded him with narrowed eyes. “You trying to be funny, asswipe?”
Tim swallowed hard. “Sorta.”
“Christ.” But a smile ticked up one corner of the agent’s mouth for a millisecond. At least Tim was pretty sure he’d smiled. At some point. During his life. Maybe.
Releasing Tim’s shoulder, the agent grumbled, “Move it, comedian. “
Comedian, that’s a good sign, Tim’s brain babbled, grasping at straws as it skittered off a cliff into gibbering insanity. A step up from asswipe or douchebag or dickwad, don’tcha think?
Tim ignored it.
The roar of water intensified as the agent led him across the remains of a ruined lawn that looked as though giant fingers had raked through the grass, and to the pit/cave. Or close to it, anyway.
Crouched at the pit’s edge was a woman wearing a wind-breaker and trim khaki slacks, her wheat-blonde hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. She seemed to be peering down into the darkness below.
The agent halted a few feet away from her. Tim came to a reluctant stop as well. Despite the air’s cool touch against his skin, sweat trickled down his forehead and into his eyes. His shoulders ached. He wished he could unlace his fingers and lower his arms.
“Hey, Kaplan,” the agent said. “Look at what I found crawling through the underbrush on his belly like a worm grubbing through the goddamned dirt.”
“Hey back, Slade. And I’ll bet it’s something I’ll wish Gillespie was here to take care of.” She sighed.
“No doubt,” the male agent—Slade—agreed, sympathy tendering his voice.
The female agent rose easily to her feet and swiveled around. She was frowning, her brow furrowed, her expression troubled. She looked at Slade. “Thought I saw something down there,” she said, nodding at the pit/cave.
“Fucking awesome,” Agent Slade muttered. “Was it singing again?”
The female agent—Kaplan—nodded. “Yup. So who’s the idiot?” she asked, directing her attention to Tim.
“Claims he’s a reporter.” Slade held up the gas mask. “Came prepared with this and a camera.”
Kaplan’s clear gray eyes swept over Tim and he felt her take his measure—past, present, and future—with one long knowing look. Under any other circumstances, Tim would’ve appreciated capturing a woman’s attention, but given that this one might order him to die at any moment, he was having a hard time working up any enthusiasm for the encounter, despite her looks.
“He’s no reporter,” she said, studying him. “At least not a field reporter. If he works for a paper or magazine it’s as a mail boy or customer service rep.” A smirk slanted her decidedly delicious-looking lips.
Tim wanted to blurt, Wrong! I’m an IT tech, bee-yotch. So much for your powers of observation, but instead he found himself saying, “I work for the Mike and Jill Carr radio talk show.”
The smirk faded from Kaplan’s lips. “A radio talk show?” She glanced at Slade.
“Even more fucking awesomeness,” Slade muttered. “Yeah, that’s a late-night conspiracy nut and UFO freak show. If they sent him, I betcha they’ll be monitoring everything going on.” He scanned the tree line with narrowed eyes. “Might even have someone watching right now.”
Hope sparked within Tim, tiny flames melting the edges of the ice sheeting his soul. Had he actually blundered into saying the one thing that might save his effing life?
Face grim, Kaplan touched a button on the small comlink attached to the collar of her windbreaker and ordered several agents to scour the tree line for unauthorized visitors.
While she talked, Tim caught a flash of white behind her at the pit/cave’s mouth. But when he looked, nothing was there. An illusion shaped by mist and sunlight, maybe. Thinking he’d seen feathers, he wondered if a dove or seagull had flown into the pit.
When Kaplan finished issuing orders, she focused her attention on Tim once more. “Any ID on him?” she asked.
Slade shook his head. “Nope. Didn’t find any when I patted him down. Douchebag left his wallet at home, apparently.”
Ah, back to douchebag. Effing wonderful.
“So what’s your name, Mr. Talk-Show-Radio-Reporter?” Kaplan asked, folding her arms under her breasts.
Just as Tim opened his mouth to reply—most likely with a fake name, something stupid like Timothy Bond or Jason Shaunn—he caught another flash of feathered white.
But it didn’t disappear this time. No. Unfortunately.
But as he stared at it helplessly, he truly wished that it had.
What he’d glimpsed before hadn’t been a parlor trick of mist and sunlight, or a spelunking seagull. The thing that humped up out of the pit behind Kaplan wasn’t like anything Tim had ever imagined.
Belly curdling, testicles attempting to crawl up as far as possible inside his body, Tim stumbled back a step, unable to wrench his gaze from the awful thing rising up like a pale and monstrous worm behind Kaplan’s wheat-blonde head.
A smell came with it, a reek ripe with decay.
Tim’s stunned brain struggled to process what he was seeing—pale gold fur and white feathers; three human faces, each taking its turn in front like a frame in a slide show; eyes blinking like stars throughout the beast/worm’s torso; rotating mouths opened—then his brain gave up.
Her hand sliding inside her jacket for her gun, Kaplan whirled around to face the thing behind her just as those rotating mouths sang, “Holy, holy, holy . . .”
And the shrill, panicked sound bitch-slapped Tim’s brain into motion. He spun and bolted for the trees as more screams and gun shots cracked through the cool morning air, echoing from the mist-draped hills.