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NEBRASKA NATIONAL FOREST
Dawson Hayes looked around the campfire and immediately recognized the losers. It was almost too easy to spot them.
He could pretend he had some super radar in reading people, but the truth was he knew the losers because . . . what was that old saying? It takes one to know one. It wasn’t that long ago that he would have been huddled over there with them, wondering why he had been invited, sweating and waiting to see what the price of the invitation was.
He didn’t feel sorry for them. They didn’t have to show up. Nobody dragged them here. So anything that happened was sort of their own fault. Their price for wanting to be somebody they weren’t. Admission to the cool club didn’t come without some sacrifice. If they thought otherwise, then they really were hopeless losers.
At least Dawson accepted who he was. Actually he didn’t mind. He liked being different from his classmates and sometimes he played up the part, purposely wearing all black on football Fridays when everyone else wore school colors. Being the geek got him noticed, even garnered an eye roll from Coach Hickman, who before Dawson started wearing black on Fridays hadn’t bothered to remember Dawson’s name.
At the beginning of the school year, during roll call for history class Coach would yell out “Dawson Hayes” and look around the entire room, over Dawson’s head and sometimes straight at him. When Dawson raised his hand, Coach Hickman’s eyebrows would dart up like the man would never in a million years have put a cool name like Dawson Hayes together with the pimpled face and the hesitant, skinny arm claiming it. Dawson didn’t mind. He was finally starting to get noticed and it didn’t matter how it came about.
Even now he knew the only reason for his continued invitation to these exclusive retreats in the forest was because Johnny Bosh liked what Dawson brought to the party. Tonight that something was burning a hole in Dawson’s jacket pocket. He tried not to think about it. Tried not to think how earlier he had lifted itthat’s right, lifted, borrowed, not stolenfrom his dad’s holster while the man slept on his one night off. His dad probably wouldn’t care as soon as he heard Dawson was hanging with Johnny B. Okay, that wasn’t true. His dad would be pissed. But wasn’t he always encouraging Dawson to make friends, go do stuff that other kids were doing? In other words, be a normal teenager for a change.
Dawson thought that was part of his problemhe was too normal. He wasn’t a superstar athlete like Johnny B or a tobacco-chewing cowboy like Trevor or a brainiac like Kyle, but just holding the Taser X26, with its lightweight, bright-yellow casing that fit perfectly in his hand, gave him a new identity and a sense of confidence. All he had to do was point and wham, there goes fifty thousand volts of electricity. And suddenly Dawson Hayes, the powerless, became powerful. He could control anyone and everyone. With this sleek piece of technology in the palm of his hand Dawson felt like he could do anything.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t just the Taser. Maybe the salvia had a little something to do with it. He’d been chewing his wad for about fifteen minutes and he could already feel the effect. That was just one of the highlights of tonight.
Dawson looked for the camera hidden behind some low sweeping pine branches. Though it remained camouflaged he could see the green dot blinking only because he had helped Johnny set it up earlier, making sure the tripod blended in with the trees. No one else knew it was there. Being the geek in residence did have its advantages.
Dawson glanced around at the campground. They had stomped out an area for themselves in a secluded part of the pine forest where they probably shouldn’t have a frickin’ campfire. Johnny B said no one could see them from the road or the lookout tower, though it didn’t matter. Both would be vacant. On one side was an open field, a swell of tall rolling grass separated by a barbed-wire fence. On the other side was the thick beginning of ponderosa pine. About ten yards away the Dismal River snaked by. Dawson could hear the water tonight, just a whisper running over the rocks.
They had left their vehicles about a quarter mile down in a deserted turnoff, a two-tire trail worn into the knee-high grass. They had to climb over a barbed-wire fence to enter the forest. The trek was only the first test of the night but Dawson thought it revealed quite a lot about tonight’s guests. How they maneuvered and crawled over the sharp barbs showed just how capable they were. Whether they turned to help the next person get over or under the fence or if instead, they looked for assistance. Or worse, expected assistance.
That was another thing about Dawson that made him different from other kids his age. He liked watching how people reacted to each other, to their surroundings, and especially to the unpredictable. His generation had become mindless zombies, mimicking and copying each other, caught up in their own little worlds of what is rather than what if. That was probably what interested him most about Johnny’s experiments.
There were only seven of them here tonight and yet they still grouped together in their cliques. Johnny was surrounded by the babes, Courtney and Amanda. Tonight even Nikki had inserted herself into the cool clique, which disappointed Dawson. He had hopes that Nikki would be better than that. All three girls looked like they were hanging on every one of Johnny’s words, laughing and tossing their hair back then tilting their chins in that way girls do to show their interest.
That was okay. Johnny was good at looking like it was his club, his party. Quarterback, homecoming king, he was charming but with just enough of a badass attitude that nobody challenged him. Being Johnny’s friend was safer than being someone who annoyed him.
Dawson wasn’t quite sure why Johnny wanted the Taser. He didn’t need it. Johnny exuded confidence, even in those silly cowboy boots. Kids called him Johnny B and it was the coolest nickname. Dawson had even heard Mr. Bosh call out “Johnny be good” at one of the football games and then the man laughed like he expected just the opposite from his son and that it was perfectly okay with him.
The first flash of light came without a sound. Everyone turned but only briefly.
The second flash crackled overhead. Dawson thought it might be lightning but it blurred into blue and purple veins that spread over the treetops like a crack in the twilight sky.
Dawson heard “oohs” and “aahs,” and smiled to himself. They’re tripping out, enjoying the fireworks. He probably was, too.
He hadn’t used salvia before but Johnny B said it was better than anything from the family medicine cabinet and way more potent than regular weed. Johnny said it was like “rock-’n’-roll fireworks squeezing your brain, convincing you that you could fly.”
Dawson thought the stuff looked harmless. Green, the color of sage, with wide leaves and similar to something he’d find in his mom’s old flower beds.
God, he missed his mom.
Dawson squashed some more of the plant into a tight wad and stuck it into his mouth between his gum and cheek like chewing tobacco, no longer wincing at the bitter flavor.
Johnny had called the plant “Sally-D” and told them that the Indians used it for healing. “It’ll clear your sinuses, clean out your guts, soothe your aches, and erase the static in your brain.”
However, he also sounded this excited last week when he had them all snort the OxyContin he’d crushed into fine particles. He had been able to confiscate only two of the pills from his mom’s medicine cabinet so the effectswhen crushed and spread out among a dozen kidsdidn’t quite live up to Johnny’s promises. But here he was, once again, sounding like an infomercial, working his magic and getting them to give the new drug a try in the hopes of feeling good and being cool.
Less than a minute after Dawson’s second hit he felt light-headed, a pleasant mind-tickling buzz that disconnected him from the others as he watched them stumble and laugh and point at the sky. It was like he was watching from another room, in slow motion from a faraway galaxy right outside his bedroom window.
There was a deep bass rhythm pounding, pounding, pounding at the base of his skull. Tree branches started to sway. Their trunks multiplied, by twos then threes.
That’s when he saw the red eyes.
They were hidden in the bush, back behind Kyle and Trevor, right behind Amanda.
Fiery dots watched, darting back and forth.
How could the others not see this creature?
Dawson opened his mouth to warn them but no sound came out. He lifted his arm to point but he didn’t recognize his hand, yellow and green, almost fluorescent in the flashing strobe light that came out of the treetops. Waves of purple and blue crackled through the branches.
That’s when Dawson first smelled the heat. Almost like someone had left on a hot iron for too long. Then suddenly the smell was stronger, reminding him of scorched hot dogs on an open campfireblack, crispy, burned meat. Then he remembered they hadn’t brought any food.
The sensation started as a tingle. Static electricity traveled the airwaves. The others felt it, too. They weren’t “oohing” and “aahing” anymore. Instead, they stumbled, heads tilted upward, searching the treetops.
Dawson looked back at the brush for the fiery red eyes. Gone.
His head swiveled. He could hear a mechanical click in his head like his eyes had become a machine. Each blink scraped like a camera shutter. Every movement ticked and echoed in his head. His nostrils flared, sucking in air that singed his lungs. A metallic taste stuck in his throat.
The next flash of light sizzled, leaving a tail of live sparks.
This time Dawson heard shouts of surprise. Then cries of pain.
Suddenly the fiery red eyes came running out of the brush, racing straight at Dawson from across the campsite.
Dawson raised his arm, aimed the Taser, and pulled the trigger.
The creature reeled back, fell, and sprawled in the leaves, kicking up glowing stars that shot out of a bed of pine needles. Dawson didn’t wait for the creature to spring to its haunches. He turned and started running, or at least his legs did. The rest of him felt carried, shoved into the forest by a force stronger than his own feet.
It was all he could do to raise his arms and protect his face from the branches. They tore at his clothes and slashed his skin. He couldn’t see. The pounding at the base of his skull drowned out all other sound. The flashes were hot and bright behind him. In front of him, total dark.
He hit the wire hard. The jolt of electricity knocked him off his feet. He stumbled and felt his skin pierced and caught like a fish on a thousand hooks. The pain wrapped arrows around his entire body and stabbed him from every direction.
By the time Dawson Hayes hit the ground, his shirt was slick with blood.
FIVE MILES AWAY
“There’s no blood?” Special Agent Maggie O’Dell tried not to sound out of breath.
She was annoyed that she was having trouble keeping up. She was in good shape, a runner, and yet the rolling sand dunes with waves of tall grass made walking feel like treading water. It didn’t help matters that her escort was a good ten inches taller than her, his long legs accustomed to the terrain of the Nebraska Sandhills.
As if reading her mind, State Patrol Investigator Donald Fergussen slowed his pace for her to catch up with him. She thought he was being polite when he stopped, but then Maggie saw the barbed-wire fence that blocked their path. He’d been a gentleman the entire trip, annoying Maggie because she had spent the last ten years in the FBI quietly convincing her male counterparts to treat her no differently than they’d treat another man.
“It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” he finally answered when Maggie had almost forgotten she’d asked a question. He’d been like that on the drive from Scottsbluff, giving each question deliberate consideration then answering with genuine thought. “But yeah, no blood at the scene. None at all. It’s always that way.”
End of explanation. That had also been his pattern. Not just a man of few words but one who seemed to measure and use words like a commodity.
He waved his hand at the fence.
“Be careful. It could be hot,” he told her, pointing out a thin, almost invisible wire that ran from post to post, about six inches above the top strand of four separate barbed wires.
“Ranchers sometimes add electric fencing.”
“I thought this was federal property.”
“The national forest’s been leasing to ranchers since the 1950s. It’s actually a good deal for both. Ranchers have fresh pastures and the extra income helps with reforestation. Plus grazing the land prevents grass fires.”
He said all this without conviction, simply as a matter of fact, sounding like a public service announcement. All the while he examined the wire, his eyes following it from post to post as he walked alongside it for several steps. He kept one hand out, palm facing her, warning her to wait as he checked.
“We lost five thousand acres in ’94. Lightning,” he said, his eyes following the wire. “Amazing how quickly fire can sweep through the grass out here. Luckily it burned only two hundred acres of pine. That might not mean much somewhere else, but this is the largest hand-planted forest in the world. Twenty thousand of the ninety thousand acres are covered in pine, all in defiance of nature.”
Maggie found herself glancing back over her shoulder. Almost a mile away she could see the distinct line where sandhill dunes, covered by patches of tall grass, abruptly ended and the lush green pine forest began. After driving for hours and seeing few trees, it only now occurred to her how odd it was that a national forest even existed here.
He found something on one of the posts and squatted down until he was eye level with it.
“Most forest services say fire can be good for the land because it rejuvenates the forest,” he continued without looking at her, “but here, anything destroyed would need to be replanted. That’s why the forest even has its own nursery.”
For a man of few words he now seemed to be expending them, but maybe he thought it was important. Maggie didn’t mind. He had a gentle, soothing manner and a rich, deep voice that could narrate War and Peace and keep you hanging on his every word.
At ﬁrst introductions, he had insisted she call him Donny and she almost laughed. In her mind the name implied a boy. His bulk and weathered face implied just the opposite. His smile did have a boyish quality accompanied by dimples, but the crinkles at his eyes and the gray- peppered hair telegraphed a more seasoned investigator. But then all he had to do was take off his hat—like he did now so the tip of his Stetson didn’t touch the wire—and the cowlick sticking straight up at the beginning of a perfectly combed part brought back the boyish image.
“Ranchers hate ﬁre.” Donny paused to take a closer look at the wood post immediately in front of him. He tilted his head and craned his neck, careful not to touch the fence or the post. “The ranchers shake their heads at rejuvenation. The way they look at it, why destroy and waste all that valuable feedstock.”
Finally he straightened up, put his hat back on, and announced, “We’re okay. It’s not hot.” But then he tapped the wire with his ﬁngertips like you check a burner to make sure it’s been turned off.
Satisﬁed, his huge hands grasped between the barbs, one on each strand of the middle two, separating a space for her.
“Go ahead,” she told him.
She had to wait for him to shift from a gentleman to a fellow law enforcement ofﬁcer. It took a few minutes for his blank stare of protest to disappear. Then he ﬁnally nodded and readjusted his grip to the top two strands instead of the middle two so he could accommodate his longer legs.
Maggie watched closely how he zigzagged his bulk between the wires without catching a single barb. Then she mimicked his moves and followed through, holding her breath and wincing when she felt a razor-sharp barb snag her hair.
On the other side of the fence they continued walking through the knee- high prairie grass. The sun had started to slip below the horizon, turning the sky a gorgeous purple- pink that seeped into the twilight’s deep blue. Out here in the open ﬁeld, Maggie wanted to stop and watch the kaleidoscope effect.
She caught herself tucking away details to share later with Benjamin Platt, only she’d relate them in cinematic terms. “Think of John Wayne in Red River,” she would tell him when she described the landscape. It was a game they played with each other. Both of them were classic- movie buffs. In less than a year what started as a doctor- patient relationship had turned into a friendship. Except recently Maggie found herself thinking about Ben as more than a friend.
She stumbled over the uneven ground and realized the grass was getting thicker and taller. She struggled to keep up with Donny.
He was a giant of a man, wide neck and barrel chest. Maggie thought he looked like he was wearing a Kevlar vest under his button- down shirt, only there was no vest, just solid, lean muscle. He had to be at least six feet ﬁve inches tall, maybe more because he seemed to bend forward slightly at the waist, shoulders slumped as if walking against a wind, or perhaps he was uncomfortable with his height.
Maggie found herself taking two steps to his one, sweating despite the sudden chill. The sinking sun was quickly stealing all the warmth of the day and she wished she hadn’t left her jacket back in Donny’s pickup. The impending nightfall seemed only to increase Donny’s long gait.
At least she had worn comfortable ﬂat shoes. She’d been to Nebraska before so she thought she had come prepared, but her other visits had been to the far eastern side near Omaha, the state’s only metropolitan city, which sprawled over river valley. Here, within a hundred miles of the Colorado border the terrain was nothing like she expected. On the drive from Scottsbluff there had been few trees and even fewer towns. Those villages they did drive through took barely a few minutes and a slight decrease of acceleration to enter and exit.
Earlier Donny had told her that cattle outnumbered people and at ﬁrst she thought he was joking.
“You’ve never been to these parts before,” he had said rather than asked. His tone had been polite, not defensive when he noticed her skepticism.
“I’ve been to Omaha several times,” she had answered, knowing immediately from his smile that it was a bit like saying she had been to the Smithsonian when asked if she had seen Little Bighorn.
“Nebraska takes nine hours to cross from border to border,” he told her. “It has 1.7 million people. About a million of them live in a ﬁfty- mile radius of Omaha.”
Again, Donny’s voice reminded Maggie of a cowboy poet’s and she didn’t mind the geography lesson.
“Let me put it in a perspective you can relate to, no disrespect intended.” And he had paused, glancing at her to give her a chance to protest. “Cherry County, a bit to the northwest of us, is the largest county in Nebraska. It’s about the size of Connecticut. There are less than six thousand people in nearly six thousand square miles. That’s about one person per square mile.”
“And cattle?” she had asked with a smile, allowing him his original point.
“Almost ten per square mile.”
She had found herself mesmerized by the rolling sandhills and suddenly wondering what to expect if she needed to go to the bathroom. What was worse, Donny’s geography lesson only validated Maggie’s theory, that this assignment—like several before it—was yet another one of her boss’s punishments.
A couple of months ago Assistant Director Raymond Kunze had sent her down to the Florida Panhandle, smack- dab in the path of a category- 5 hurricane. In less than a year since he ofﬁcially took the position, Kunze had made it a habit of sending her on wild-goose chases. Okay, so perhaps he was easing up on her, replacing danger with mind- numbing madness.
This time he had sent her to Denver to teach at a weekend law enforcement conference. The road trip to the Sandhills of Nebraska was supposed to be a minor detour. Maggie specialized in criminal behavior and proﬁling. She had advanced degrees in behavioral psychology and forensic science. Yet it had been so long since Kunze allowed her to work a real crime scene she wondered if she would remember basic procedure. Even this scene didn’t really count as a crime, except perhaps for the cows.
Now as they continued walking, Maggie tried to focus on something besides the chill and the impending dark. She thought, again, about the fact that there was no blood.
“What about rain?”
Almost instinctively she glanced over her shoulder. Backlit by the purple horizon, the bulging gray clouds looked more ominous. They threatened to block out any remaining light. At the mention of rain, Donny picked up his pace. Anything more and Maggie would need to jog to keep up.
“It hasn’t rained since last weekend,” he told her. “That’s why I thought it was important for you to take a look before those thunderheads roll in.”
They had left Donny’s pickup on a dirt trail off the main highway, next to a deserted dusty black pickup. Donny had mentioned he asked the rancher to meet them but there was no sign of him or of any other living being. Not even, she couldn’t help but notice, any cattle.
The rise and fall of sand dunes blocked any sign of the road. Maggie climbed behind him, the incline steep enough she caught herself using ﬁngertips to keep her balance. Donny came to an abrupt stop, waiting at the top. Even before she came up beside him she noticed the smell.
He pointed down below at a sandy dugout area about the size of a backyard swimming pool. Earlier he had referred to something similar as a blowout, explaining that these areas were where wind and rain had washed away grass. They’d continue to erode, getting bigger and bigger if ranchers didn’t control them.
The stench of death wafted up. Lying in the middle of the sand was the mutilated cow, four stiff legs poking up toward the sky. The animal, however, didn’t resemble anything Maggie had ever seen.