Books By E. J. Deen
Malevolent Book Two coming soon!
I've compassed Mars, that barren rock-strewn orb.
I've skated the rings of Saturn, journeyed to Pluto and beyond.
I saw the earth at its birth, witnessed its struggle for life.
I am the light that shone bright and shines no more.
In me lies the power to show you all that your soul burns to see.
In my eyes, the mysteries of the ages.
Beyond my wingtips, the universe beckons.
But would you follow me?
Elliott stared at the cell phone on the table before him. He'd been sitting there for God knew how long, trying to collect his thoughts, wondering how much he should tell old Larry, knowing that Larry would never believe him, anyway. Not that it really mattered. All that mattered was that Larry did his job.
He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. He took one out and stuck it into his mouth, then lit the end with a lighter he'd filched from the motel diner. The fluttering of the flame drew his focus from the end of the cigarette to his hands. They were shaking. They were always shaking lately. The realization displeased him.
Annoyed, he flipped the lighter closed and inhaled deeply. Damn cigarettes. They'd be the death of him one day. If those things out there didn't get him first, those beasts of the air, or whatever the hell they were.
Bolstered by the nicotine hit, he reached out and tapped the screen on his phone to record a message, but the words he wanted to say did not come right away. He didn't know where to begin.
"Larry," he finally began. "It's Elliott. By now, you've heard about my disappearance." He gave a short, wry laugh and then took another drag off his cigarette before continuing. "It's not what you think. I'm not…dead. Not yet, anyway."
He scrubbed a hand across his face, feeling how gaunt it was, how rough it was from the whiskers he hadn't bothered to shave off for the last month.
"Listen, I need you to do something for me. I want you to liquidate my assets. Everything. And put the money in a trust fund for me. All except for the house. Give that to Ruth. She deserves it after putting up with me for so many years."
He took another pull from the cigarette. "I can't explain things right now, so don't bother to ask." He looked at the phone, stared hard at it, watching the display lights travel across the screen, recording his prolonged silence. "We've known each other a long time, Larry. You know I'm not a bullshitter, and I'm not bullshitting you when I say this. There's something out there. Something...malevolent." He heard the vulnerability in his own voice. He sounded afraid, sad. Confused.
"They aren't like us," he muttered. He laughed again, a dry, flat sound that ended too soon. "That sounds crazy, doesn't it? But it's not. I've seen them with my own eyes. I know they're out there." He waved a hand in the air as if Larry could see the gesture. "Out there...in the ether, waiting."
He glanced back at the phone, frowning now. He'd said too much. "Just do what I ask. I'll be in touch."
He pressed the stop button and saved the recording then accessed his email account and found the contact he wanted.
"Lawrence Freiberg, Attorney-at-law," he muttered, his eyes scanning the address to make sure he hadn't transposed any letters in his haste. After a moment’s hesitation, he attached the recording and pressed send.
He crushed his cigarette out in the ashtray nearby and stood up, reaching for the black leather duster he'd draped across the chair. Time to go. He'd stayed too long.
He left the key to the room lying on the table. Lingering too long in one place was not good. The hell with rest. He had to get back out into the open. Being in a room made him claustrophobic. He hated it, but it was a fact of life now. So much had changed in the past several months. Nearly everything about him had changed. But he had to deal with it now. He couldn't go back. They wouldn't let him.
Six months earlier....
"The UFO sightings of the past are becoming more prevalent, and the new vogue in alien phenomenon may seem far-fetched. From saucers in the sky to alien abduction and now an extra-terrestrial plot to save our planet from ourselves. Is there any credence to these claims made by seemingly ordinary American citizens, or is it...."
Annoyed, Elliott Grey reached over and switched off the car radio, cutting the announcer off in mid-sentence.
"Bullshit," he muttered.
He pulled his Lincoln Navigator into the parking lot where he worked, cut the engine, and grimaced through the windshield. It was raining, as usual. He loved Seattle, but the rain could be a regular pain in the ass.
Sighing, he halfheartedly stepped out of the car, dragging his rain slicker with him. He struggled into the uncooperative coat and jogged through the drizzle toward the attractive red building that housed the busy workaday world of one of the country's most popular magazines.
As Elliott passed through the glass doors and into the blessedly dry interior, a co-worker on his way out half collided with him. The man muttered a distracted apology and went on. Elliott was nearly to the other side of the lobby when the same co-worker ducked his head back inside.
"Hey, Bill?" Elliott barked, turning back toward the doors. Rainwater dripped from the other man's slicker, leaving a small puddle of water on the highly polished floor. The boss would've had a fit. The building was a designer's masterpiece inside and out, and he liked it kept that way.
"You left your lights on, buddy," Bill called.
"They'll shut themselves off," he answered, shaking rainwater from his coat as he turned and proceeded across the lobby. The droplets of water showered in every direction, drawing his attention to the expensive leather shoes he'd so recently purchased. They were soggy from puddle jumping, virtually ruined.
"Damn Seattle weather."
The switchboard receptionist looked up as he passed her desk, and asked, "What was that, Mr. Grey?"
"I said what a nice sweater." Elliott grinned as he openly admired her blouse.
She gave him a flirtatious smile. "Thank you, Mr. Grey."
"Have a great day, Liz," Elliott said, never even breaking his stride.
"You, too," she called after him.
Smiling, he sauntered through the set of doors leading off the lobby, up the elevator to the second floor, down a hall lined with glass-fronted offices and finally into his own office. It was a relief to be there.
"Home at last," he sighed.
Tossing his briefcase onto the desk, he plopped down in the comfortable swivel chair and immediately began rooting through his desk drawers.
"Lose something, Elliott?" a warm female voice asked from the doorway.
Elliott's office was an open invitation. He never closed the door. He was too nosy. He didn't want to miss anything, not even the annoying office gossip. Besides which, a closed door would only make him feel isolated, and he didn't like feeling cut off from the hustle.
"Coffee," Elliott muttered, still searching.
"Since when do you keep coffee in your desk?" the woman drawled. She stepped further into the room and placed a steaming mug on the desk in front of him.
Elliott glanced up from his plundering. "Three sugars, two creams?"
She smiled. "Would you have it any other way?"
Elliott beamed at her. "You're a saint, Dorothy."
"I thought you quit smoking," she challenged.
"What makes you think I haven't?" Elliott said between gulps of coffee.
"All that pilfering through your desk." She arched a delicately tweezed brow. "I know that look. I've seen it on your face a hundred times. You're dying for a cigarette, and you were hoping you'd find a pack stashed in there somewhere. As anal-retentive as you are, I'm surprised you ever smoked to begin with. But I guess once a habit always a habit."
"No, I really have quit. And this time it's for good," Elliott promised.
"Mm hm." Dorothy didn't sound convinced. "In any case, don't get too comfortable just yet. Tom wants to see you in his office right away."
Dorothy never was one to mince words. She always got right down to business. That's why Elliott loved her so much. She was a lot like him.
"Darn, and I thought you'd come to tell me how happy you are to see me back." Elliott gave her another of his impish grins.
"Don't flatter yourself, Elliott," Dorothy jibed back, always ready for his quick wit.
Elliott knew better. Dorothy adored him. Most women did. There was nothing arrogant about the knowledge. It was just a simple fact of life. And why not? He was an attractive man. Thirty-eightish. Jet-black hair shot with a few silver strands at the temples. Gray eyes framed by thick black lashes. He was tall and, although a bit on the thin side, well formed. He dressed like a sophisticate. He was articulate, terribly well read, an intellect. He was always punctual, and his penchant for paying enormous attention to detail made him a standout in anything he turned his hand to, right down to his impeccable journalistic style. He could inspire respect from men even while he was charming their women. He'd overheard Dorothy saying once, "Despite all the perfection, he's a big sweetheart. A woman would be crazy not to want him. Even if he does get a little too full of himself now and then." It was his favorite description.
Dorothy crooked a finger at him. Elliott got up and followed her out the door, his eyes on her derriere all the way down the hall. Dorothy was secretary to the head-honcho, and had been for nearly thirty years, in varying capacities. She was faithful as a favored hound. A petite, bleached-blonde, ex-bombshell, and still a head-turner in Elliott's opinion.
"How old are you now, Dorothy?"
"Fifty-three." She slanted a curious glance over her shoulder. "Why do you ask?"
"Hard to believe with a bottom like that," he remarked, never missing an opportunity to tease her. "How do you manage?"
"Diet and exercise, Elliott. Two things you've never tried." She turned her head to smile at him.
"Must be some workout routine."
"Every night." She gave him a sly wink so he wouldn't miss her innuendo.
"Maybe you could give me some pointers."
"Eat more healthy foods and smoke less," she suggested.
"I already quit smoking. Honestly, I have," Elliott defended.
When they reached her desk, she buzzed the inner office to let Tom know Elliott had arrived.
"You may go in now," Dorothy told him in her most professional voice. She gave him one last quick smile before he was swallowed up in their employer's vast office. The cavern was as much a showpiece as the man himself. It was all polished mahogany, expensive leather, and gleaming brass. The room was masculine right down to the choice in carpet.
"Elliott! Good to see you back safe and sound. I'd hate to have my best journalist blown to bits by terrorists." Tom approached him and gave him a hearty slap on the back. "How was the middle east?"
"It sucked," Elliott replied truthfully. “Nothing ever changes.”
He settled into one of the leather chairs and studied his employer intently. Tom McKinney was a big, burly man with a wide face and an easy smile that belied the bold, risk-taker underneath. He was a demanding, over-achieving, workaholic. A savvy businessman and a millionaire, with a heart of gold. He was a gentleman's gentleman, a diplomat, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. Humanitarian awards lined his office walls. He had guts of steel and balls to match. He'd started the magazine on a shoestring, and took it from nothing to national success nearly overnight.
Public Scrutiny, the fastest growing magazine in the country. Home base Seattle, Washington. And it was all Tom McKinney's.
If it was news, Tom was in it. Public Scrutiny was the place to be when it came to incidents and accidents. If it was happening in the world, it wound up in the pages of Scrutiny. Not just the mundane crap, either. No, sir. Public Scrutiny was the newspaperman's event magazine. News that captured the attention and invigorated the brain. Quality reporting featuring a variety of topics, from world headline news and politics, science and technology to interviews with the movers and the shakers of the world, even entertainment. Public Scrutiny was prestigious. Respectable. A complete success. And Elliott Grey was its prize reporter.
"You'd think all that scuffling would have stopped by now. They're crazy over there, you know," Tom was saying. "Friggin' Palestinians."
Elliott shrugged. He liked Tom. Always had. He was easy to work for and a good friend. And despite what others said about him, he was a fine person.
"Coffee?" Tom cocked his head quizzically in Elliott's direction, his shaggy mop of iron-gray hair looking as wild and unkempt as it usually did.
Elliott passed. "No thank you."
"Did you get a story for me?" Tom asked, slurping noisily at his own cup of Joe.
"I got a story all right." Elliott grimaced. "And I damn near got my leg blown off by some terrorist bomb in the marketplace."
"No shit?" Tom stared at him.
"Personally I think people are sick and tired of hearing about all the crap going on over there. Too negative."
"That's exactly what I want to talk to you about," Tom crowed. "The public is looking for something new, and the magazine has to fulfill that need. Public Scrutiny needs a different kind of story. Something compelling."
"I thought we were always compelling."
Tom ignored him. "I have a story I want you to do for me. It's different, but it'll give you a nice break from the usual. Elliott, I hired you because you're an accomplished journalist."
"Here it comes," Elliott muttered under his breath. Tom was stalling, and Elliott knew it. The boss never sang the praises of a journalist unless he was about to unload a stinker.
"You're versatile. You can make a story out of anything. You're the best in your field. Major magazines and newspapers all over the country clamor for journalists like you."
"Is there a point to all this?" Elliott broke in. He'd been fiddling with Tom's pen set and waiting rather impatiently to hear what the assignment was.
"I want you to do an interview with a man down in Sanderson, Texas. He claims to have been abducted by aliens. He wants to give us first crack at his story." Tom paused for Elliott's reaction.
"Excuse me?" Elliott put the pen set back on the desk. "Am I hearing you right? You want your best journalist to do a crummy alien story?"
Tom eyed him anxiously. Elliott bristled at the implication. Tom had a thing about writers. He believed they were all egomaniacal, given to being difficult, and Elliott was no exception.
"This guy really sounds sincere. I think he's legit."
Elliott pushed himself out of his chair and paced the room, but he only made a few laps before turning to confront his employer again.
"I can't believe you're buying into this. The story has been done to death. I even heard one on the radio on my way here. It's crap, Tom. Pure and simple." Elliott raked an agitated hand through his hair. "I don't want to do it. Get someone else."
"This isn't a request, Elliott," Tom barked. "It's a fucking command from on high. Everyone else is tied up, and I can't afford to miss this story. It's an exclusive."
"An exclusive with another boring abduction tale. Woe is me." Elliott didn't bother to hide his sarcasm. "If I hear one more Roswell story, I'll bust a gut."
"Come on, give it a shot. The guy's scared shitless."
"Shitless. Now there's a concept. Tell him to take a laxative."
"Har, har! Very funny, Elliott. Quite the comedian.
"You liked it, did you?"
Tom frowned at him. "Hell no!"
Elliott sighed. "Why me? You just sat here and told me I was your finest contributor. Now you want to send me off on some lame claim to fame. It's probably a crackpot hoax like all the others." He gave a snort of contempt. "The market is saturated with the shit. What can a story like that do for this magazine? You've built a solid reputation here, good quality reporting. Why ruin it now?"
"If it's crap, then explain why it's happening to so many people all over the world."
"Media hype? Power of suggestion?"
"Elliott." Tom leaned in and gave Elliott his critically serious face. "The people want to know the truth about this phenomena. Maybe it is garbage. But it's my duty to give the public what they want, garbage or no garbage."
"Send someone else. I don't want my name on a story like this," Elliott grumbled.
"Use an alias."
Elliott turned his back and silently went to stand at the window.
"I'm counting on you, Elliott," Tom said. "You're the only one who can make something out of it. These other bozos would do a botch job, same ole same ole. You know that. It has to have a new angle, or it won't fly."
Elliott glared with hostility through the glass, watching the rain fall over Seattle. "There are no new angles."
"A quick interview and it'll be over with before you know it. Dorothy already has your plane ticket ready for you. She's even booked a hotel room. It's all set to go."
Elliott glanced reluctantly at his boss. He knew Tom wouldn't take no for an answer.
"Then, when it's done, you can take that vacation you've been needing," Tom persuaded. "I'll extend it a week. Three weeks paid vacation. You can't beat it."
Elliott was silent.
"Dorothy will take care of everything for you."
"When do I leave?" Elliott ground out. He was unhappy as all hell about this, but he hadn't been given a choice in the matter. Tom was dead set on him going, and Tom always got what he wanted.
"This afternoon? Give a man a chance to relax, why don't you," Elliott grumbled.
"Have that middle east story on my desk by noon. You can take the rest of the day to prepare for your flight."
You're all heart, chief." Elliott gave him a mock salute and turned to go.
Elliott paused at the door and turned back to look at him.
"Make it good."
"I always do."
"And take your computer, for crying-out-loud. I want e-mails and texts."
"Three weeks...paid," Elliott reminded him before ducking out the door.
"Three weeks," Tom echoed.
Elliott stopped at Dorothy's desk. "Have Jim down in Research come up with as much information on extra-terrestrial phenomenon as he can get before my flight leaves. Make it pertinent information only. No Roswell crap. And no crop circles. Tell him I don't give a damn where fiber optics came from, either."
"Already in the works." Dorothy beamed at him. "I'll have it in your office by noon."
"So efficient." Elliott stalked back down the hall. He wasn't going to enjoy this assignment, but if he must do it at all, he would do it in true Elliott Grey style. He would simply have to cram the research in on the flight down.
Back at his desk, Elliott opened his travel-weary briefcase and pulled a flash drive out of an inner pocket. The story he'd been withholding from Tom, complete with some of the most intense photos ever taken. He laid the drive in the center of his desk and then sat admiring his office. It was small, but he kept it neat. Some of his best magazine covers lined the walls, a history of his rise as a journalist.
After a moment of organizing his thoughts, he put in a quick call to his housekeeper. Ruth. Short and plump, with soft, white hair, she was an Englishwoman right down to the bone. She'd been a British nanny until he'd stolen her away from a good friend. Now she was home to Elliott, a godsend. Whether he was away on assignment or back at home base, she kept his house in perfect order. Without her, he would never have a clean pair of socks. And the side benefits were just gravy. He obligingly suffered her motherly attentions. It was like having a great old aunt around the house taking care of him. She was the closest thing to family he had.
"Ruth!" he crowed, when she finally answered the phone.
"Why, Mr. Grey, you're back." She sounded pleased to hear from him. "Why didn't you stop by the house to let me know?"
"I had to come directly to the office. Business as usual. Listen, Ruth, I have another assignment. My plane leaves at three o'clock. I need you to pack some things for me."
"Oh, it's a shame you have to jump and run off again so soon. I thought you had your vacation coming up."
"It's been delayed. Which reminds me, would you call the Noltens and see if I can still get the cabin?"
"Of course, Mr. Grey."
"I'll call you from Texas and keep you informed."
"Shall I have your bags sent to the office for you then?"
"No, I'll be stopping by the house for a shower and a change of clothes."
"And a hot meal I hope."
Elliott's stomach rumbled at the thought. "Need you even ask?"
Ruth chuckled. "See you momentarily, Mr. Grey."
Elliott smiled as he ended the call. He liked the way Ruth fussed over him, but it would be much nicer if Susan was still the one doing the fussing.
He frowned. Susan. He hadn't spoken to her in months.
He stared at his cell phone. He shouldn't do it. She wouldn't like it. But, dammit, he couldn't help himself.
Taking a deep breath, he said into the phone “Call Susan.” After a long series of rings, a polite female voice answered.
"Susan Daniels, please," Elliott requested.
After a lengthy wait, another feminine voice came on the line. "Susan Daniels speaking. May I help you?"
For a moment, Elliott was unable to answer. It had been so long since he'd spoken to her that he had to fumble around for something to say. "Susan," he finally managed. "It's Elliott."
"Elliott?" She sounded anything but enthusiastic.
"Yeah. Uh...say, how've you been?"
"Just fine. How about you? Any really hot stories lately?"
Elliott ignored the hint of bitterness he detected in her voice and plowed ahead. "I just got back from the middle east."
"Oh, that's too bad." There was a short silence and then Susan said, "Was there something you needed, Elliott?"
"Needed?" Elliott floundered. "No. Actually, I just...thought I'd give you a call and see how you were getting along."
"It's been four months since I last heard from you and just like that, right out of the blue, you decide to give me a call to see how I'm doing. Give me a break. What do you want, Elliott?" she demanded.
"I have a vacation coming up soon. I thought we might get together, you know." Elliott hated the plea he heard in his voice. It made him feel like such a loser.
"I'm seeing someone. Remember? Allen. The same man I've been dating for the past year. Or have you conveniently forgotten about that?"
"I just wanted to see you, Susan. What harm can it do?"
"Too much harm," she quipped.
"Is it so serious that you can't say hello to an old friend?"
"We're getting married in six weeks. I would classify that as a serious relationship," she retorted.
"Gee, isn't it a little soon for that kind of commitment?" Elliott cradled the phone on his shoulder and took off his necktie. Damn thing suddenly felt like it was choking him. Or maybe it was just her rejection making him feel like he couldn't breathe.
"It's been more than a year now. Allen has offered me the kind of commitment that you wouldn't in all of the five years that I worshipped you. Do you think I'd jeopardize that to play games with you?"
"Just have lunch with me," he insisted, more out of pure stubbornness than anything else. After all, her last remark had stung.
"No. I have my own life now, Elliott. You have your career. We aren't a couple anymore. I wish you would learn to accept that. You can't keep popping in and out of my life whenever you damn well please." She paused for a second, and Elliott heard a soft sigh on the other end of the line. When she spoke again, it was gently, a trace of the old Susan in her voice. "Please don't call anymore, Elliott."
There was an audible click, and the line went dead. Elliott set the phone back on his desk and just sat there staring into space.
"That didn't go so well," he muttered, frowning.
Susan Daniels had been a huge part of his life for a long time. She'd been the good part. She'd taken care of him, nurtured him in ways no one ever had before. She had always been there when he needed her. But it had all blown apart when he'd hesitated to marry her. The hesitation had cost him. She'd left him because of it. Just like that. Gone.
That's what he got for not listening. If he hadn't made his career the most important thing in his life, he would still have her. She'd tried so hard to get his attention, to get him to wake up and realize he was letting the relationship slip through his fingers. But he'd been stubborn. He'd assumed it would always be there for him whenever he needed it.
He'd been wrong. He knew that now. Now that it was too late to get her back.
She'd been hard to give up. Still was, even after all this time. She'd been the only woman he'd ever loved, and to this day he had no idea why he'd been so terrified of marrying her.
Elliott kicked off his shoes, leaned back in the chair, and rested his feet on the desk. He was tired, too tired to mourn a lost love.
If Elliott Grey was anything he was a workaholic, but, at the moment, he was a workaholic who was in sore need of some rest and relaxation. All the traveling to foreign lands was damn hard business. He hadn't taken a vacation in almost three years, but if all went as planned, he would soon be spending three relaxing weeks in the Montana Rockies. Blissful solitude. No rush to get an assignment in. No boss demanding super-human feats from him. No busy city. Just him and the mountains. Too bad Susan wouldn't be there to share it.
Dorothy suddenly stepped into the office and critically eyed his shoeless feet as she approached the desk.
"Cute socks," she observed, studying the pink polka dots sprayed across the toes of the otherwise conservative gray socks.
"Thanks. Ruth got them for me." Elliott grinned and wiggled his toes.
"I see you're really busting your hump over that story Tom wanted," Dorothy commented, one eyebrow raised sardonically.
Elliott nudged the flash drive on the desk with the end of the pencil he'd been chewing.
Dorothy gave him a knowing smile. "Well before you arrived in Seattle, I imagine."
"You imagine correctly."
"Trying to make Tom sweat it out?" she mused.
"Would I do that to the old man?" he teased.
"Would you ever," Dorothy shot back.
Elliott pretended to be offended.
"You could have e-mailed him something. Tom bitched all week about it."
"Too technical for me."
Dorothy was naturally skeptical. She knew Elliott's pretense of not liking his computer was just that, a pretense. He used the damn computer all the time, but he never used it when Tom wanted him to.
"Meanwhile, I brought you the research you requested." She tossed half a dozen fat nine-by-twelve envelopes on his desk.
"That's a lot to absorb."
"That's not all of it." She handed him a flash drive.
Elliott stared at it.
Dorothy gave him a wicked grin. "I'm sure you already know how to get into Jim's files."
Elliott didn't say anything, just took the drive.
She pushed a smaller envelope toward him. "Your plane ticket to El Paso. I have a rental car reserved for you. You'll have to drive the distance to Sanderson."
"El Paso?" Elliott queried.
"Sorry. It's the best I could do. It's the closest airport. From El Paso it's maybe three or four hours to Sanderson," she explained. "I've reserved a room for you at a motel there. It isn't the Hilton, but it'll have to do. I've written down all the necessary info for you. You'll find it tucked inside this folder. There's also a profile on the man you'll be interviewing."
She handed him the folder. He took it reluctantly, but didn't bother to open it. He would have plenty of time to read it on the plane.
"Your interview has been scheduled for three o'clock tomorrow afternoon. He'll meet you at your motel room. He prefers to remain anonymous. He says he doesn't want people hounding him."
"This plane ticket is one way," Elliott interjected. "What's the old man up to? Exactly how long does he expect this assignment to take?"
"Don't worry, Elliott. We'll get you back to Seattle. We always do. Tom just didn't want to limit you by giving you a deadline to beat. Remember, Tom wants a story with grit. You have to find something unique about this incident."
"So, basically, I can spend as much time as I want."
"Within reason," Dorothy warned.
"In that case, I'll need a plane ticket back on the following day," Elliott retorted.
"Don't be too sure," Dorothy quipped.
"I'm more than sure. There's nothing to these stories."
Dorothy ignored his whining. "I'll just take this to Tom for you." She reached for the flash drive on his desk.
"It isn't noon yet." Elliott made a grab for the drive and missed. Dorothy was too quick for him and snatched the story out from under his fingers.
"Have a nice flight, Elliott." Dorothy gave him a wink and left his office, the drive dangling from her fingers like a prize.
"Three weeks paid!" he shouted after her.
He sighed and stood up to leave. Already, he hated this trip. He hated having to go back out in the rain, and he hated that Susan was getting married.
* * *
The minute the wheels hit the runway at the airport in El Paso, Elliott unbuckled his seatbelt and fumbled in the overhead compartment for his flight bag. As the plane taxied to the gate, he fidgeted anxiously, checking his watch several times. Nine-thirty p.m. He sighed. It would be past midnight by the time he made it to Sanderson.
Fortunately, the rental car clerk was quick and efficient. Still, Elliott didn't relish the long drive ahead of him. Despite the coffee he'd chugged during the flight, he was weary. He couldn't wait to fall into a bed, even if it was a lumpy motel mattress.
After a brief search, he found the rental car, threw the luggage into the trunk, and headed for Interstate 10. As soon as he was out on the open road, he rolled the windows down and pushed the car beyond the speed limit, Nazareth's Hair of the Dog blaring from the radio.
Two hours later, he'd left I-10 behind and was roaring down the final stretch, a barren two-laner. It wasn't long before he was peering hard out the windshield, looking for a place to pull over to relieve his bladder. He hadn't passed a single full-facility rest area for miles, and from the looks of things he wasn't likely to.
"Shouldn't have drank so much coffee," he mumbled to himself.
He took his foot off the accelerator and guided the car to a halt on the side of the road. He switched the engine off but didn't bother to take the keys out of the ignition. He didn't need to. He was virtually alone out there, in the middle of nowhere. Not a car in sight. It couldn't have been more convenient. Still, he walked around to the opposite side and partially out into an open field, turning his back to the road to lend a sense of privacy to the act. He didn't like to relieve himself just anywhere.
Elliott unzipped his trousers and studied his surroundings while he allowed nature to take its course. The stars were brilliantly displayed in a perfectly clear night sky. It was peaceful out there. The night was still, not even a breeze. He stared out over the field. It was so dark he couldn't see far, but the land seemed to go on for miles, just emptiness. It was an odd feeling, sort of lonely. Like the rest of the world had ceased to exist and he was the only one left in the universe.
He'd just finished and was about to zip up when he heard a slight whisper of sound from above him. A hum of some sort. Thinking it was a jet flying overhead, Elliott started to glance up, but before he could, he was suddenly knocked to the ground by a phenomenal rush of wind.
It burst over him so quickly and with such force that the impact slammed him to the grassy earth and tumbled him a few feet. He squeezed his eyes shut against the dirt that pelted his face, and clawed at the ground, trying to get his bearings. His lips were stretched back over his teeth, his hair and clothes plastered to his frame, and his body registered every pound of pressure being exerted on it with an intensity that was frightening. Angry at his own feeble attempts to get back to his feet, he yelled into the wind, but the words were snatched from his mouth and hurled inaudibly into the atmosphere.
Just when he was beginning to wonder if he was about to be sucked up into a tornado, the wind died as suddenly as it had started. Spitting grass from his lips, Elliott opened his eyes and peered around, looking for the cause of the odd occurrence. The field was as still as it had been when he'd first stepped into it. Not even a slight breeze.
He searched the sky for a long time but saw nothing. Except for the stars, it was empty. No planes. No tornado. Not even a single cloud. Nothing but calm.
His breath ragged, he pushed himself to his feet. "What the hell?"
He looked at the car sitting on the road half a dozen yards away. It was undisturbed.
Elliott was staggered. Except for that odd hum he'd heard just seconds before the blast, he hadn't known the force was coming. The thing had just hit out of the blue, almost like he'd been buzzed by a jet-fighter. Silent and invisible.
"If that was a micro-burst...."
He never finished the sentence. On shaky legs, he went back to the car. Down the road, a pair of headlights dotted the horizon. Feeling oddly anxious, he watched the car approach and then pass by. It was the first vehicle he'd seen since he'd turned onto 285.
Realizing his zipper was still down, he gave it an angry yank, and, with one final glance at the sky, climbed back into the car. All the way to the motel, he expected to see something in the sky, or at least hear something on the radio about the weather, maybe a tornado somewhere nearby. But there was nothing. He'd just have to chalk it up as a fluke, a strange natural phenomenon of some sort.
Still, he couldn't let go of it. In all his years of reporting, he'd never been more disturbed by anything. All the wars he'd slogged through, the death, the savagery. Nothing had ever come close to this. The wind had been so cold, downright arctic. In the middle of a Texas heat wave. He wasn't sure why, but it left him feeling anxious, agitated. It was silly, but there all the same.
"It was just wind," he kept telling himself.
Somehow, he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd been touched by something far, far beyond his scope of understanding. And his realm of conception suddenly seemed narrow, almost morbidly confined. For the first time in his life, Elliott Grey felt small.