Deputy Sheriff Jack Steadman wondered if Sheriff Lane had ever dealt with anything like this. Of course not. Lane’s only responsibility was to make it in time for breakfast at Dinah’s, break up a fist-fight now and then and write tickets on out-of-town speeders.
There were other responsibilities too, like picking up campaign contributions from Growth Lumber, collecting fees from the pulp mill, looking the other way at the poison dumped in Bulita Creek. And then there was that high school girl.
Steadman liked the fact Scott Felton thought Steadman was the sheriff. All the outsiders thought so. The townspeople knew better. They knew Sheriff Lane had been impeached a year and a half before. The city council had been meaning to get around to an election, but their budget was a little strapped by all the activity in town. “A drain on public services” was what the council said. Steadman shook his head. For a bunch of environmentalists, they sure piled up the trash and ran up the utility bills. And after all the town’s effort, the crazies thought the council and the sheriff’s office worked for the lumber companies.
The world is getting more complicated, Steadman decided as he dialed the phone. And it had to get that way on your watch, he realized bitterly.
“Weather Service,” the voice on the phone said.
“Is Allen there?”
“Just a second.”
Allen Montero came on the line. Over the years he’d become the unofficial liaison to the sheriff’s office, giving them the dope on where the rain would fall, how much snow there’d be, whether the winds would be high enough to knock out power.
“This is Jack Steadman.”
“Hi, Jack. What’s up?”
“I’ve been getting some reports on lightning storms.”
A long pause at the other end. Steadman wondered if he heard Montero sigh.
“Allen?” “Yeah. I’m still here.”
“Did you hear me?”
“What do your reports say?” Montero asked.
“Just weird stuff. Lightning flashes across the ground, through the woods. I called the Forest Service and they said there hadn’t been any fires–not a single spark–which seems strange.”
“Yeah, that all fits,” Montero told Steadman.
“So what’s going on?”
There was another pause at the end of the phone. Montero was worried about something. Hell, so was Steadman.
“What?” Steadman repeated.
“Can you keep this under your hat?”
“Sure. I guess so. What are you talking about?”
“I guess I oughtta tell you,” Montero said. “Could be a police matter, even if I’m not sure yet. I haven’t even mentioned it around here.”
Montero was whispering now and Steadman was suddenly aware of the pain on his ear from the force of the phone receiver.
“What?” Steadman asked again, whispering himself now.
“That lightning is man-made.”
“Man-made. Created. Artificial.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Someone’s creating lightning out there,” Montero hissed.
“How the hell do they do that?”
“Beats me,” Montero admitted.
“Don’t know that either.”
“Are you sure about this?” Steadman insisted.
Steadman had forgotten the pain in his ear, but the tight knot in his stomach was growing.
“Okay, thanks,” Steadman said finally. “Let me know if you get anything else.”
Steadman hung up. Montero was as solid as you get. Not likely to make something like this up.
Steadman called the Parks Service, without much result. At least they didn’t say he was crazy. They listened to his story, thought it was interesting, hadn’t heard anything to help, would let him know if they did.
Steadman stared at the phone. Growth Lumber next. He’d talked to them before over the years. They always had the same answers to everything: silence disguised in a pile of legal language, evasion hidden in mystery, veiled threats and hidden bribes. Everything was accounts receivable or accounts payable to them. Every conversation was either a shakedown or a sales opportunity. For all the support the logging men and women of Hafton had given them over the years, Growth Lumber had returned nothing. The environmentalists were wrong of course: it would take twenty years to clear all the old growth trees from the landscape, not ten like they claimed. Still, they had a point, and their hatred for the company mirrored Steadman’s own.
Steadman picked up the phone and dialed.
“Growth Lumber,” a female voice answered.
“Mr. Ranson, please,” Steadman told her.
“May I say who’s calling?”
Okay, so he’d lied–he was still a deputy.
“Hello, sheriff,” Ranson said as if they were old friends. “How are Susan and Jim?”
“They’re fine,” Steadman replied flatly. Ranson was reading a card or something. Steadman had been divorced for nearly two years. Wife Susan and son Jim lived in St. Louis now.
“Give them my regards,” Ranson said.
Sure. Write it on the back of the next alimony check.
“I need to ask you something,” Steadman said. He wished he could see Ranson’s face when he asked the questions. There might be lying involved and Steadman didn’t want to hear the lies over the phone.
“Certainly,” Ranson said.
“Have you been doing any old-growth cutting west of Ontario Road, south of the ridge?”
“That’s off-limits, Jack.”
“I know that,” Steadman said, “but I’ve been getting reports.”
“Not about us,” Ranson assured him.
“Any of your subcontractors?”
“No, Jack–that’s against the law.”
“How ’bout any electrical work. Stringing power lines or anything like that?” Steadman asked.
“I don’t think so. I can check, but I don’t think so. We’d have to get a permit and I’d be in on that, I think.”
“Okay,” Steadman said. “Thanks. Must be someone else then.”
“Let me know what you find out,” Ranson said. “One bad apple and all that.”
“Sure. Thanks again.”
Steadman hung up. They’d be gone in twenty years. There’d be no more trees. The rains would wash the earth down the rivers. Growth Lumber would move on, taking its millions, maybe billions, into some other segment of the economy, probably involving public lands and public resources again, their stock in elected officials being their strongest asset.
Steadman would be fifty then. He could retire, the way Lane had. What would he do then? The woods would be gone, the fishing would too. Susan and Jim were gone and it was too late to start another family. He wouldn’t want to live here anyway. Already he remembered with intense pain what it used to be like, when he was a kid, before the chainsaws multiplied and the mountains went bald.
Steadman stood and stretched. It was a little past one. Time to go see the crazies.
It was a complex engineering problem–right up Scott’s alley–to figure out exactly where the lightning started.
Clues were scarce. His picture contained only a single lightning flash. Scott had wound to the next frame of film right after, and luckily, during the wait, the film had recorded enough light to define the outline of the mountain beyond. There were no stars recorded, nor the moon–that would make things too easy.
Scott stepped off the porch and scouted the front of the cabin. He found a rusty nail, dated from the cabin’s construction.
Scott took the photograph to the porch’s corner post and aligned it precisely with the mountain. Scott closed one eye, stood exactly to his full height and made the height of the mountain in the photo match the real one in the distance. Scott pressed the nail into the photo and stuck it into the post.
He compared. The lightning flash on the photo started a quarter of the way to the base of the mountain. That would make it about a mile, Scott figured. Scott spotted the sun. He would make that east. The mountain is almost dead west, Scott decided. Scott went into the cabin and brought out a piece of paper. He drew a small cabin, a mountain and the sun’s location in the morning. He looked again at the picture and the forest beyond and estimated where the lightning began.
Scott drew an X, then sketched in the road and the trail. Scott drew a line from the end of the trail, where the craters were, to where he calculated the lightning began. He then drew a line from the craters to the sun.
The thirty degree angle that resulted would be a start.
Scott folded up the paper, put it in his pocket and started down toward the road.
It was a hot day and the mosquitoes were up early. Scott crossed the road and wondered why he had never seen one car on it during the week he’d been there. He hadn’t even heard one. Would you have noticed? Too long in the city. Listen. Watch. Be aware. Like the primitives.
Scott followed the familiar trail. When he’d walked what he thought was the right distance and consulted his map, he looked up. There it was, a thin strand of wire tied to a tree, extending across and disappearing to someplace. It was almost invisible, like fishing line, forty feet high in the tree, strung taut. Scott considered climbing the tree, but there were no lower branches for a foothold.
How this skinny wire generated lightning-sized bolts of electricity was a mystery Scott had to solve. His curiosity would have to overcome his fear. He would come back. At night. 2 A.M.
Scott drove Main Street, considering stores. There had to be a hardware store somewhere, but Scott didn’t see it. There were gift shops and antique places, but that wouldn’t do. Scott turned at the end of town and found another street in the other direction, parallel to Main Street, with commercial shops and an electronics store. Scott parked in the lot.
Armed with three rolls of thin wire, Scott climbed the mountain again.
Scott tied the end of one wire to a branch and rolled off fifty feet. He untied the wire and tied a pine-cone to the end. Scott threw it up at the suspended wire. On the third try, the cone flew over the taut wire and fell to the ground.
Scott grabbed the cone and pulled both ends of the wire. There wasn’t much give. Whoever had strung the wire above had made it tight. Scott looped his wire around a steel tent-stake he’d bought at the camping store. He pounded the stake in the ground.
“You’re grounded,” Scott said to no one in particular.
Suddenly, panic shot through Scott’s mind. What if a deer happens along, or a bear, or a mountain lion? Scott couldn’t stand the thought of electrocuting one of those creatures. And what if they don’t die, but stagger helplessly in the forest, still alive and angry? For a moment, Scott considered giving up the whole idea.
What if it’s a scientific experiment? Are you screwing it up here? No, it couldn’t be. The tall man. The girl. They aren’t scientists. It’s something elicit. Something that has to be stopped.
So Scott left the wire. And he strung two more grounding wires. He would summon the courage, whatever happened. He’d deal with it–there wasn’t a choice. The forest was at stake, and despite all the work he planned, this was where the battle lines had to be drawn, right here in the woods.
Steadman stuck his walkie-talkie in his belt and walked over to the motel. He found the room he was looking for, he knocked.
“Who is it?” Armstrong Gault called from inside.
“Am I under arrest?” Gault asked.
Steadman let it pass. Gault was just one more cop-hater–not worth the trouble.
“I wanted to ask you some questions,” Steadman said casually through the door.
There was a long pause and finally the door opened.
“Go ahead, ask,” Gault said.
“Have you been out in the woods lately?”
Gault shook his head. It wasn’t what he expected.
Steadman realized instantly Gault wasn’t involved.
“Spiking trees? Setting booby-traps? Anything like that?” Steadman went on.
Again Gault shook his head.
He’s hiding something, Steadman realized. But the lightning isn’t part of it. Steadman tried to look past Gault into the room, but Gault held firm at the doorway.
“How come you’re not picketing today?” Steadman asked.
“I’ve been on the phone,” Gault said. “Working on a new pamphlet.”
An answer to everything, Steadman thought. Keep an eye on this one.
“So you and your friends haven’t been running around in the middle of the night,” Steadman quizzed him.
Again Gault shook his head, as if he didn’t want to go on record with an answer.
Man, he’s paranoid, Steadman thought. Thinks I’m wearing a wire. Steadman had considered going home and changing into civilian clothes–he didn’t want this to look too much like an official investigation. These environmentalists were paranoid of law enforcement–he’d found that out already.
Copyright 2007, Brenda H. All rights reserved.
[tags]Brend H, sci-fi, novel, excerpt, science-fiction, fiction, thriller, scary, environment, ecology[/tags]