The Storm Riders

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: June 12, 2019

Reads: 71

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Submitted: June 12, 2019

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Chapter 1

Riders on the Storm

 

A tingle of electricity crawled across Stephanie Richardson's arms, and the hair on her head stood on end. Above, an effervescent whirlpool of blue light swirled in the night sky. She needed to get away and quick. She hastily shoved the mysterious device that she held in her hand into her purse and began to run.

As she did a flash of light enveloped her. Stephanie came to a dead stop and slapped her hands over her face as every cell charged with electricity. The thin gaps between her fingers bled an elliptical glimpse of the explosion of light, and the loud boom that followed rattled her to the bones.

She squeezed her eyes shut as the unbearable pain of being ripped apart at the molecular level savaged her body. The sensation of being yanked backwards like iron shavings drawn to a magnet made her feel sick until part of her came to an abrupt halt. Then, like the cars of a derailed train, the rest of her caught up and slammed back into her body. Then all was quiet. Too quiet. It took a few minutes for the nausea to subside, but when it did, she opened her eyes.

A bright light sifted through the cracks between her fingers. She felt certain that a bolt of lightning had struck her dead, and this was the infamous light people talk about when they come back from the other side. Hell, I might as well get this over with. But when she let her hands slip from over her face, she began to panic.

She silenced the alarm going off in her head and looked around. To the left—sand. To the right—sand. Behind— more sand—miles of the stuff. Above—a cloudless, blue sky and a fiery ball radiating down unforgiving heat and blinding light.

She mentally scrambled to fit the pieces of the cosmic puzzle together, but all she came up with was more questions. Was she dead? Maybe her assumption that she was good enough to enter the kingdom of Heaven was wrong and this was Hell. It sure was hot enough. But, if this was Hell, where was Gerald. Surely, he should be here. Stephanie dropped her purse and yanked her coat off. The hissing wind at her back and stinging sand rushing past her like a swarm of angry bees felt real. If this was reality, then how in the hell did she get here? It was impossible to go instantly from a rain-drenched night to an arid desert day. Wasn't it? Linear time and space had seemed to go awry.

She looked around. What had happened to the others? Where was the restaurant? The only nearby structure was a huge column of slate-gray rock poking up out of the wasteland. It looked like God had plucked up a piece of Stonehenge and slung it, and it happened to land here. She'd read enough of the bible to know that He was prone to throw a temper tantrum on occasion.

She checked her Rolex. It didn't work. Whatever had happened to her had affected the timepiece as well. The spilled contents of her purse, including Grinder's odd device, was lying at her feet. She scooped up her bag, and fumbled around for her phone with the hopes of using the built in GPS to find out her present location and call 9-1-1 for a quick rescue. Shielding the display screen from the overbearing light, she saw the NO SERVICE bar, but made an attempt to use it anyway. Several futile tries later she angrily tossed it back into her handbag. Grinder's gizmo caught her eye. She had a sneaking suspicion that it was the cause of her current predicament. If the thing had gotten her here, it might get her home. She plucked it up and began randomly pressing buttons, but nothing happened. "Ohhhhh!" Panic welled up inside her, but she stopped it before it became out of control. She needed to stay levelheaded and calm. Relax. Breathe deep. Think, Stephanie, think. You've been in tough situations before.

There were two ways for her to handle this quandary: she could stand here and bake like a clam, or try to walk out. The unfriendly climate was already robbing her of vital moisture. She swallowed hard and it went down her throat in a dry lump. Maybe there was someplace nearby that offered A/C and a cold drink. She looked around again. Not likely. What she needed was protection from the deadly UV rays. She looked down at the coat at her feet. The thought of wearing the garment made her cringe, but she could use it for shade. She picked it up and draped it over her head. In the process she dropped the device and thought about picking it up, but quickly surmised that the thing was useless to her and would only be added weight. And who knew if she'd ever see that Grinder guy again to return it, anyway? Now, which direction she should go? She turned in a slow circle scanning the horizon and made her decision. With her back to the sun, she tramped across the hot sand.

Gusts of wind kicked up grit that nipped at her ankles, nested in her hair, and crawled down the open collar of her silk blouse. Finer particles embedded in the nylon weave of her hose, and it wasn't long before they were abrading the material and her skin. The two-inch heels of her shoes hindered her pace. She balanced on one leg, removed a shoe, and plunked her foot down on what felt like a bed of fiery, hot coals. She let out a yelp of pain and jerked her foot out of the sand. Well, that wasn't going to work. She shoved the shoe back on. She would just have to perfect her technique, that's all. Find a rhythm.

She pressed further on into no man's land staring at the endless sea of dunes with the determination she was going to conquer them one at a time. She had faith that she'd make it to a safe destination—wherever that was. Off and on, the old guy in the sky teased her with a convoy of small, puffy clouds that blocked the sun for a few fleeting moments.

The plodding trek left a lot of time for the nagging questions lodged in the back of her mind to break loose and surface. It was just tonight she'd met the strange man, John Grinder, while running away from her husband, Gerald. Or, was it last night? The insanity of the situation defied all explanation. Either way, whoever Grinder was, he was the cause of whatever this madness was, and probably knew the way out of it—wherever he was. Maybe she had escaped Gerald's evil grasp, but in doing so, she'd taken a deep plunge down the rabbit hole of from out of the frying pan and into the fire.

~~~

She had driven like a bat out of hell as a storm raged around her. Her Mercedes plowed through the pools of water on the feeder off I-10 as she sped toward Houston.

She hated driving at night, especially in the rain. But, she had no choice. She had set in motion a course for a new life and there was no going back. Until tonight, Ida March had been no more than a raspy smoker's voice at the other end of the phone demanding that Stephanie deliver what she'd promised. She felt for the handkerchief wrapped object in her purse. It was small, but worth a fortune. This was her ticket out. She glanced down at the loaded revolver in the seat next to her and wondered if she would be forced to use it.

A flash of bright light drew her attention back to the windshield. She looked up in time to see a jagged bolt of lightning striking the pavement in front of her and the bright pair of headlights of a vehicle coming the wrong way, directly at her. Now, only yards away from a collision she quickly jerked the steering wheel hard to the right. Her car fishtailed onto the shoulder and off the pavement where it bucked across the uneven terrain like an untamed bronco.

Everything loose began a madcap journey of tumbles and bounces as she stared wild-eyed at the approaching barbed-wire fence. She slammed on the brakes, sliding to a stop inches from the steel strands. The airborne objects settled and became lifeless in the passenger side floorboard. Unable to breathe, she sat rigid as a corpse behind her seat belt as a soft tune from the radio ended and the meteorologist began babbling something about the freakish lightning storm, a freezing cold front sweeping in from the west, and more rain to come. She caught her breath, reached down, and turned off the radio, leaving only the sound of the reciprocating wiper blades raking the water from the windshield.

She checked the rearview. Even though the cretin's vehicle was out of sight and definitely out of earshot, she still yelled out, "Idiot!"

Relieved of some of the frustration and anger, she pulled the shifter into reverse and pressed the sole of her expensive pumps down on the accelerator. The spinning tires churned up mud along with stalks of long grass. She felt the car sinking and remembered that when rain mixed with Southeast Texas clay it produced a thick gumbo mud. Frustrated, she let off the gas, opened the door and peered back over her shoulder at the half sunk tire and the goop inside the fender-well caked on thick.. "Damn it." The pouring rain forced her to close the door. In the rearview mirror, she caught a glimpse of her face lit by the eerie green glow from the dash-lights. Damp cords of dark hair hung in front of her blue eyes. She scowled at her reflection and tucked her wet hair behind her ears.

She flicked on the interior light, retrieved her upended purse, and began putting the spilled contents back inside. When she came to the handkerchief-wrapped object, she used a long fingernail to pry up one of the folds and examine it. She felt relieved that is wasn't damaged and stashed it deep into her bag.

She searched and found her Smart-Phone only to discover that she had no service. Another flash of lightning ripped through the darkness and thunder exploded in the heavens. She guessed the storm must have taken out one of the towers. Stephanie huffed, tossed it to the seat next to her, and settled back into the leather. Time was running out and she was stranded. "Now what am I going to do?" A flash of lightning and the boom of thunder answered.

Seconds later she heard the rumble of an approaching vehicle. She looked to the rearview mirror, squinted against the searing high beams coming through the back window, and watched as a silhouetted figure approached her car. She reached down, locked her door, pulled the revolver into her lap, and laid her purse over it.

A set of knuckles gently rapped against the glass.

She slipped her hand beneath the purse and curled her finger around the trigger before rolling the window down a few inches. Rogue drops of water found their way through the opening and spackled her face with cold rain.

A man stooped and peered through the crack. He tugged the bill of his soiled newsboy cap down to shield the square features of his face from the downpour. "Are you okay?"

Grateful to have come through unscathed, she returned a faint smile. "Yes."

"It was an accident. I'm sorry."

As she put two and two together, her threadbare smile was suddenly overshadowed by a frown. "Was it you that ran me off the road? You could have killed the both of us if I hadn't swerved."

"But you're all right."

"That may be so, but I'm stuck, and I can't call a wrecker; my phone is on the fritz.

He glanced down at the rear wheel buried up to its Mercedes emblem. "I have a truck. I think I can pull you out of here."

If the man was willing to help, she thought it best to curb her contemptuous attitude. "Thanks, that would be great."

He rose. The light from the truck's headlamps washed away the color of his skin and he appeared to be a tall, porcelain figurine draped in denim coveralls. He surveyed the overflowing ditch. Water was quickly rising to the front bumper. "We'd better hurry." He grabbed the collar on his jacket and gathered the rain-soaked material around his neck. "Sit tight while I hook the chain to your car." He turned around and sloshed back up the slope.

While he maneuvered his truck into position and hooked up the chain, Stephanie deliberated over the details of the incident and was certain that the truck hadn't appeared until after the lightning strike, and she was certain that the feeder is a straightaway and there aren't any curves to conceal the truck's approach. She couldn't justify it, not logically, but, to assign a supernatural component to the situation to explain it would be absurd. She decided there wasn't anything eerie about the event. During the discourse of the episode her brain had simply blanked out some of the details of the accident. Anxiety could do that.

He returned to her window with water streaming down his face and said, "Put it in reverse. You can gas it a little, but let me do the pulling, or you're going to sink it deeper. Got it?"

She nodded.

He gave her a thumbs up and returned to his truck. A few seconds later her car jerked as the truck eased forward and the chain grew taut. A plume of black smoke regurgitated from the truck's tailpipe as the engine labored against the mud determined to hold onto its prize. Finally, the car began to rise from the muck, and within moments, the Mercedes' tires rested on the shoulder of the road.

After he unhitched the chain from the vehicles, tossed it into the bed of his truck, he did a quick inspection of her car before returning to the driver's side window.

She rolled it halfway down.

"I don't see any damage and the rain should take care of the mud."

The man truly regretted being the cause of the mishap, she could see it on his face. Stephanie eased her finger off the trigger, pulled her hand from beneath her purse, and foraged through her wallet. "Let me pay you something." She held up a one-hundred dollar bill.

He waved it off. "I can't accept your money for something that was my fault."

She stuffed the money back into her purse and offered a faint smile. "Thank you for coming back and—."

A series of beeps snapped her sentence in two. The sound came from the breast pocket of his jacket. Immediately, he withdrew a mechanism. It had the appearance of an old-time calculator. He punched a few buttons and the beeps ceased. With grave concern etched on his face, he said. "I've got to go." Without any further explanation, he raced to his truck, and a moment later he sped away.

In the rearview mirror, she watched his tail lights become two pinpricks of red in the distance. Her car was now pointed back the way she had come. Maybe it was a bad omen. She shook the feeling, made a U-turn, and continued on her journey.

The storm intensified and made it impossible for the wipers to keep up with the pelting rain. She glanced to her right at the overflowing ditch. Unwilling to risk another accident, she dropped her speed.

Four miles further on, she spotted the small billboard for the roadside café that she was looking for and passed the Houston city limits sign. She turned off and rolled into the café's parking lot, populated by knee-high clumps of weeds breaching cracks in the concrete. She pulled into one of the parking slots left of the entrance and shut off the engine. She glanced at the time. Ida March wasn't due for another half hour, so Stephanie was glad that she had made an early start. She sat there a few minutes and checked out the place. A pair of old-fashioned gas pumps along the right might have been painted a vibrant red at one time, but were now a washed-out pink. She briefly pondered if they still worked before her gaze was drawn to the building itself.

The diner sagged at the corners and made the bank of windows on each side of the entrance slope drastically downward, giving it the appearance of a grumpy old man. At the far edge of the parking lot, a branchless, dead tree poked up from the ground like a gnarly finger bone pointing accusingly toward Heaven. At its base, a large hand-painted sign promised hot coffee and home-cooked meals. She found some comfort in that.

Her observation led her to the Charlie's Diner sign, fixed to a tall, steel pole and dangling high above her head. A vine of kudzu waged silent war against it by creeping up the pole and strangling the establishment's neon signature, the only outdoor lighting source. She could relate. She felt suffocated by the real threat of punishment from her husband if she didn't follow the rules set by the clandestine society of ill-gotten money they were a part of. Her light had been extinguished long ago.

Even though the promised freezing temperatures would soon rescue the vine's victim, she could not wait for the intervening hand of God to solve her problems. She had had to fashion her own method of liberation. She reached down in her purse and lightly ran the tips of her fingers across the object bound in white cotton. Unexpectedly, she was startled from her mental flirtations with escape as a police cruiser pulled into the parking lot with its lights flashing. Flickers of red and blue filled the compartment of her car.

She stopped breathing and her heart pounded. The cruiser made a U-turn, blasting the siren as it sped away. She filled her lungs and let out a nervous little laugh in response to her guilty conscience's assumption that she had been caught despite having done nothing wrong, yet. The wailing faded out and she stuffed the revolver, along with her phone, into her handbag.

She took one last glance in the review and checked her makeup. The waterproof mascara had held up. It was the hair. "Ughhhh!" What a mess. She fussed over it with a quick finger comb. When that didn't work, she piled it on top of her head and rolled it into a tight bun and secured it with a hairclip from her purse. She took another look in the mirror. Removing the clumps of hair away from her face had completely exposed her high cheekbones and deep blue eyes and accented her strong chin. She could have been a model, someone once told her, but those days were past her now. At thirty-four years of age, most agencies had already put their models out to pasture. She pouted her lips. Lipstick, check. She pulled away from the mirror.

Tethered to the hope that the establishment had remained open despite the storm, she opened her door to the sound of fizzling electricity coming from the overhead sign and stepped out into the rain and cursed her lack of an umbrella. In a futile attempt to stave off the downpour, she held her purse over her head. A mischievous gust of wind sprang up, lifting the hem of her skirt, leaving her decency to the mercy of the blustery weather. She reached down and smoothed the material against her sodden thighs before she raced to the front entrance, grabbed the handle on the screen door, and opened it.

The rusty spring attached to the jamb warbled a symphonic welcome. She was confronted by another door with a hand-written No Shoes—No Shirt—No Service sign. Suddenly, an abrupt gust of wind tore it from its mooring of freezer tape and sent it sailing off. She fumbled the knob in one hand while shoving against the door with the other. The shifting frame of the old building had made it sticky, but on the third attempt she put her shoulder in to it and managed to open it. Stephanie stepped inside and slammed the door closed behind her. A rush of warm, climate-controlled air brushed against her face, bringing with it the scent of stale cigarette smoke and the strong odor of calorific, fatty, fried foods.

A young woman standing behind the counter greeted her with a mechanical smile and then returned to looking bored while sipping on a glass of soda and puffing on a cigarette.

Stephanie looked at the empty dining tables scattered throughout the middle of the room and decided to bypass them for the row of booths at the windows. She chose the one at the back to give herself a view of the front door and the entire parking lot. Floorboards creaked under her feet as she made her way over to it. She arrived, removed her coat, and draped it across the back of the bench before sitting down next to the rain splattered panes and tried to look out, but the water cascading down the glass reduced the outside world into a blur.

The girl crushed her half-smoked Marlboro against the NO SMOKING sign next to the register before stepping out from behind the counter. She grabbed the mop leaning against the glass door of a freezer filled with ice cream cakes and novelty pops. Begrudgingly, she slopped up the wet trail and mopped her way to the hem of Stephanie's coat that was still dripping water onto the wood floor.

Stephanie offered an apologetic smile. "Sorry."

The girl showed no reaction to the peace offering.

"I'm glad that you're still open." Stephanie kept her smile in hopes that the girl's exasperation would wither.

Instead, she stated in annoyance, "The evening cook called in sick, but Charlie says I've got to keep this pigsty open no matter what. Are you going to order anything?"

Stephanie felt hungry. It had been almost twenty-four hours since her last meal. She picked up the laminated menu from the table and quickly perused it. "I'll have a grilled ham and cheese."

The girl rolled her eyes. "We're out of ham. How about something else?"

Stephanie's response came out as a question. "A cup of coffee?"

"I'll have to brew it." The girl turned and walked away, dragging the mop behind her.

Stephanie dug down into her purse, fetched up the handkerchief wrapped object, and placed it on the table for a quick transaction with Ida. Eezee peezee. Then she'd be out of here. Suddenly, the spring on the screen door repeated its madcap concerto. She looked up. The front door pushed open. The paper napkins on the tables took flight.

The newcomer rushed in and opposed the gusting wind by putting his shoulder into the door and giving it a hard shove. The strong corporeal force that was wreaking havoc suddenly lost its power and the napkins fluttered down.

Crap. What is he doing here? Stephanie's thoughts immediately turned to suspicion as the man with mud-caked boots strolled toward her table.

The waitress scowled at the paper-littered floor, ignited the wick of her lighter with the spin of the wheel, and lit another cigarette. From the cloud of smoke hanging around her, the waitress glared at the muddy trail of footprints across the wood floor.

Stephanie became leery of the man's arrival. Was he following her? Maybe Gerald had awakened from his snooze and sent out one of his goons to search for her. But if that were true, he could have easily left her stuck down in the ditch while he summoned Gerald. There had to be another reason for his being here.

The man stopped and stood over her smiling down. "Could this be serendipity?"

She managed to smile back, but it was strained. "Maybe." There was nothing fortunate about it. His presence could throw a monkey wrench in her plans.

"I never introduced myself."

"Yeah, you left in bit of a hurry." She tried to keep her smile but it broke beneath the weight of her angst.

He stuck out his hand. "The name's John Grinder."

To be polite, she shook it. His skin was cold to the touch. As she withdrew her hand, she thought it better if she only give him her first name. "Stephanie."

"Mind if I sit?"

Her mind was still in a quick search mode for an excuse, any excuse to say no, but pulled a blank.

From beneath the bill of his hat, he stared down waiting for an answer.

"Sure, Mister Grinder." She offered a faux smile and motioned to the seat across from her.

After he sat, he said, "No need to be so formal. You can leave off the Mister."

"How about I just call you Grinder, then?

"That suits me just fine."

Her mind did a replay of their encounter and reignited her suspicions. "Weren't you in front of me?"

"Yeah, but I had to turn around because of flooding. I remembered passing this place. Barely saw it," he added.

Stephanie's B S meter pegged out and her eyes narrowed on his face. Gusting wind suddenly slammed the rain against the windowpanes.

He averted his gaze to look. "The storm is really picking up," he said.

He looked away too fast, she thought. Like he wanted to find anything to shift her attention away from him before she read his lying eyes.

"What are you doing out in such nasty weather?" he continued.

Just as she had suspected, the man put the ball in her court. She decided to keep her responses lean. "Taking care of an errand."

His eyes shifted to the tabletop and stalled on the handkerchief. "It must be pretty important to brave this storm."

She scooped it off the table, and shoved it into her handbag on top of the one-way airline ticket and snacks. She let her gaze stray to the window, still unable to see a thing. A bolt of lightning flickered. A peal of thunder shook the glass, and for a moment, she thought they might shatter.

He waited for the rumbling to fade out. "Sorry," he said. "It's none of my business."

The waitress returned, set a cup of coffee down in front of Stephanie, and looked down at her with hollow eyes. "Anything else?"

"Another cup of coffee," Grinder replied. "With cream and sugar."

The young girl pouted her lips, did a one-eighty before making the short journey back to the counter like a spoiled brat that had been told to go and clean her room.

Grinder looked back over his shoulder and watched her dig beneath the counter for another coffee cup. He turned back around. "That girl needs a serious attitude adjustment."

The episode sparked Stephanie's memory of working small jobs for little pay that hardly covered rent. It was barely one step up from living on the streets. "I can remember feeling that way." His brown eyes questioned her in a way that made her feel obligated to explain further. "I mean being where she's at and desperately wanting out."

His eyes went to her wrist and fixed on the expensive watch. "It looks like you've succeeded."

She subconsciously raised her hand to her cheek and ran it across the length of a bruise that was barely hidden by a bad cover-up job and returned an empty smile. "My husband does well."

He looked at the vacancy on her ring finger.

She noticed him looking and withdrew her hand from her face, placing it in her lap.

"What does your husband do?" he asked. He cocked his head in a way that made him look like an inquisitive puppy.

"Why do you want to know?"

"Just curious."

"Curiosity killed the cat."

"True." He returned a warm smile. "But satisfaction brought him back."

Giving out too much information could be dangerous. No way she was going to disclose that Gerald dealt in trafficking illegal weapons and stolen technology. She sighed and summed it up quickly with, "Military."

Grinder raised an eyebrow. "Interesting."

She hoped by asking a question of her own it might take the ball out of her court and put it into his. "So, what do you do?"

He broke eye contact and began nervously fidgeting with his silverware.

She noticed he was just as anxious as she was about sharing personal information.

Finally, he replied, "I'm a storm chaser."

She raised an eyebrow of her own. "Interesting." From the looks of his clothes she would have guessed a farmer, but the little curiosity she held was quickly dissolved by her own pressing matters. She rolled her wrist until she could see the hands on the Rolex. Almost eight. Damn it. Ida would be here any minute, and Grinder, for some reason, chose to hang around. His presence might raise the woman's suspicion and blow the deal.

The waitress returned to their table, stood next to him, balancing a cup of scalding coffee above his head. It rattled on the saucer while she fished packets of sugar and cream out of her apron's pocket with her free hand.

He reached up for the cup. "Maybe I should take that." He gently took it from her and eased it down in front of him with a look of relief on his face.

She placed the cream and sugar in front of Grinder. "Anything else?"

He rummaged a crumpled twenty dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to her. "Keep the change."

The girl grinned big and returned to her station behind the counter and lit another cigarette.

John watched her blow a gray cloud of smoke into the air with no respect to the No Smoking sign. He turned back around, wrapped both hands around the warm cup. "That feels good." He lifted it to his lips and took a sip. More lightning filled the panes. An electronic beeping filled the space between them. He set the cup down, fished the same flat, rectangular object out of his pocket.

"Gotta go?" she asked hopefully, but much to her dissatisfaction he shook his head.

"No." He mashed buttons, more beeps.

"What is that thing?" She wrinkled her brow. "Some kind of calculator?"

He pushed a few more buttons before looking up from the screen. "No, this is more like a storm tracker. It picks up anomalies." He said it while checking the time on his watch.

"Towers are down," she said. "Remember?"

"This doesn't work off a satellite," he replied absently as he pulled a small black book from his pocket and laid it on the table. He opened it and thumbed through the pages filled with notes and drawings and landed on a chart filled with red plot lines. He glanced at his watch again.

"What sort of anomalies?" she asked.

"Curiosity killed the cat," he said as he closed the book. "Remember?"

Stephanie looked out the window in time to see a large streak of lightning strike extremely close to the diner followed by a loud boom. The lights inside the restaurant winked out.

A female voice called out of the darkness. "Thank God." A spark ignited the wick of her lighter and embezzled the darkness. The waitress held it above her head and stood in the dim glow of the flame. She looked at Stephanie and Grinder. "Party's over, folks. I'm closing this dump and getting out of here."

"You can't," Stephanie protested.

The girl held the lighter out and chased the shadows further back into the corners. "Look, lady, there's no power." The words from her breath disturbed the flame and sent it into a fit of jitters that shifted the shadows across her angular features. "Go. Home."

Stephanie slipped her hand into her purse, pulled out the revolver, and pointed it at the girl.

The blood drained from the waitress' face and her eyes rounded out with terror. She quickly flipped the lid closed on the lighter and extinguished the flame. Everything went black. "Please don't shoot," she pleaded as she backpedaled deeper into the darkness and ducked behind the safety of the register.

A flicker of lightning illuminated Grinder groping blindly across the table for the gun and Stephanie quickly jerked it back away from his hand.

He spoke from the gloom. "Are you crazy? Put that thing away."

"No! Ten minutes, that's all I need." She turned and addressed the darkness. "Hey, Miss Cheerful, have you got a flashlight or something?"

The waitress responded with a flick of the lighter as she lit a candle and plunked it on the countertop, filling the room with a dim glow that left heavy shadows hanging out beneath the tables. She ducked back down behind the counter.

Stephanie waved the pistol at the bar. "Come out from behind there."

An anxious moment passed without a reply. A second later, a deafening bang and muzzle flash briefly eclipsed the cadence of the storm and the discharge from the pistol left a hole in the side of the counter the size of a nickel. A tendril of smoke hung in the air that drifted off like a ghostly apparition.

The girl slowly raised her head. Her eyes were large discs of terror. She stood fully erect and raised her hands above her head.

Stephanie waved the pistol again. "Come over here and sit down."

The girl took abbreviated steps toward them.

"Hurry up," Stephanie commanded.

The frightened girl picked up the pace and scuttled across the floor. She stopped at the booth and sat down next to Grinder. All of the blood had drained from her face and she sat frozen like a statue at his side.

Stephanie's gun hand trembled.

He said, "I don't think that you really want to hurt anyone."

She responded with a shake of her head. "Of course not."

"Why don't you tell me what this is all about and maybe I can help you."

She shook her head again. "You can't help me. In a few minutes, someone is going to come through that door. I'll give them what they want and then we can all leave. No harm, no foul."

"Obviously you don't trust whoever you're supposed to be meeting," he pointed to the gun, "or you wouldn't have brought that along."

The spring on the screen door suddenly squawked out one long, sour note that permeated the wooden door.

Stephanie swallowed hard and quickly tucked the gun beneath the table. She looked at both of them with pleading eyes. "Please, don't say a word."

Heavy thuds vibrated the cantankerous door, one after another.

Grinder and the girl turned to stare at the entrance.

Stephanie envisioned the enemy at the gates with a battering ram. One last massive thump and it opened with a blast of cold, lilac-scented air. The paper napkins skittered along the wooden planks. At the entrance, a large, silhouetted figure filled the frame, leaving little room for the rain to enter between the gaps. The person stepped inside. In one hand was a suitcase, it was a vintage hard shell, spotted with age, and a single latch. In the other hand she held a smaller satchel.

The behemoth gave the door a solid bump with her butt. It slammed closed with a loud bang and the gusts ceased. The woman set the luggage down, struck a match, exposing her thick features, raised the sputtering flame to a cigarette dangling from her lips, lit it, and exhaled. She raised the match above her head giving a glow to the ethereal mane of thick, gray smoke surrounding her heavily made up face. The three of them sat in stunned silence. Stephanie thought she'd seen a better mug on a wildebeest.

Suddenly, the ceiling lights fluttered on. Ida shook the match out, dropped it to the floor. She picked up the two cases, propelled herself forward on elephant-sized legs to the edge of the table and stopped. Through a pair of horned-rimmed glasses, she bounced a quick glance off the trio and landed back on Stephanie. "I wasn't expecting you to bring an entourage."

Stephanie quickly geared up to defend herself with a host of excuses, but Ida shrugged it off and said, "No matter." The cigarette bobbed up and down with the movement of her lips. "Where is it?"

Stephanie wrapped her fingers around the handkerchief bound object and pushed it to the edge of the table.

Ida plucked it up and tugged at the knots until the contents were free. She took up residence at the table next to them, pulled a laptop from the satchel, placed it amongst the condiments, and fired it up. She plugged the memory stick into one of the ports. While sending puffs of white smoke into the air, she pecked at the keyboard, the screen flickered, light washed across her face and the words Lipotron Bomb mirrored on the lenses of her glasses.

Stephanie had gained knowledge of the bomb's potential from the dinner parties they threw to entertain potential buyers. The explosion could fry every living creature within a hundred mile radius like bacon on a hot griddle while leaving all structures intact. The visual that played inside her head made her cringe. Her sense of right and wrong had been playing tug of war with her feelings all evening, but the good angel sitting on her right shoulder suddenly won out. "I've changed my mind."

Ida looked up. "What?"

"The plans for the Lipotron Bomb are not for sale."

A revelation dawned on Grinder's face.

Ida grinned. "It's a little too late for that, Honey."

Like a flash, Grinder grabbed the gun out of Stephanie's purse and scooted across the bench and bumped the waitress off. She spilled to the floor and bottomed out on the hard planks and out a loud, "Ummmph!

He was now on his feet and had the gun aimed at Ida. He held his hand out. "Give the flash drive to me."

Ida sat there in stubborn silence.

He bowed up. "If that bomb were denoted over a crowded city the burst of electromagnetic energy would kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people!"

Ida shrugged. "Not my problem."

Grinder fired off a shot. The bullet missed her by centimeters, struck the daily menu sign that was slightly off to the right behind her, and splintered the special of the day. "Next time, I won't miss."

The young waitress, who had been silent up to this point, suddenly bolted up and cupped her hands over her ears. She chanted, "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod...."

The girl's involuntary mantra put too much strain on Stephanie's already overtaxed emotions, and got the better of her. She erupted like a volcano. "SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN!"

The waitress quickly returned to a dormant state and obediently sank into a chair at one of the neighboring tables.

Grinder told Ida, "Now, give me the flash drive before I kill you."

She pulled it from the port and tossed it to him.

He shoved it in the pocket inside his coat. "Now get out!"

Ida slammed the laptop closed and packed it back in the satchel. With it in hand she went for the suitcase.

"Leave it," said Grinder.

She scowled at him before she lumbered to the door and opened it, allowing in the cadence of the storm. A bolt of lightning flickered, briefly highlighting the overdone makeup on her basketball-sized head into the face of a mad-crack-clown. "You don't know who you're messing with." She grinned back through a cracked coat of red lipstick and plucked the cigarette from her mouth with sausage-sized fingers and dropped it to the floor where she squashed it with the square toe of her shoe. She stared at him defiantly. "She'll kill you." Ida's stare swept over Stephanie and the waitress. Badra Amtullah is going to kill you all."

"Get out," said Grinder. He cocked the hammer.

Ida clomped out and thundered down the steps.

After she was gone, Stephanie raced to one of the windows, pressed her face against a pane of glass, and strained to peer out. The drops cascading down the windows transformed Ida's figure into a shape-shifting blob as she stormed to her car. A moment later she climbed behind the wheel and the taillights, also smeared by the rain, glowed red. The car backed out and sped away.

"Badra Amtullah was the buyer?" Grinder asked.

Stephanie spun around. Terror filled her eyes "Yes. And she's a ruthless killer!"

"OH MY GOD! YOU PEOPLE ARE CRAZY!" The waitress, now recovered, rushed over to the wall phone behind the counter. "I'm calling 9-1-1." She grabbed the handset out of the cradle and began punching buttons.

Grinder fired off a shot. The phone base exploded into shards of plastic and exposed a mess of sparking electronic innards.

"FREAK!" The severed cord dangled from the handset she clutched in her hand. Anguish washed across her face as she let the phone drop. It hit the floor with a clatter. "Did you hear what the clown lady said?"

Grinder nodded. "That's the best reason for getting out of here before Badra Amtullah shows up."

"Sure," said the waitress. "You two are going to breeze out of here and leave me holding the bag."

"Leave. Get as far away from here as you can," said Grinder.

"Yeah, right. On what? My looks?"

"Does this place have security cameras?" he asked.

She rolled her eyes. "Pfffffft! This dump? Noooo!"

"Good." Grinder went to the suitcase, flipped it on its back and undid the hasp.

Now that she'd been relieved of all guilt for possessing the money, Stephanie exclaimed, "Hey, that's my mine."

"You can spare a little." Grinder opened the lid. Stacks of hundreds stared back.

The waitresses' eye lit as he dredged out a thick stack of bills.

"Consider it a big tip for forgetting what happened here tonight."

An overgrown smile exposed two rows of crooked teeth as the waitress grabbed the money and stuffed it into her apron pocket. "Sure, no problem." She reached down and rattled the set of keys bedded in the pocket of her jeans. "Like I said earlier, the party's over and I'm closing this pigsty and getting the hell outta here."

After Stephanie put on her coat, grabbed her purse and the suitcase, the waitress ushered them out the door, set her own purse down on the top step, and locked the door behind her.

The torrential rains had reduced to a slow drizzle. Lightning flickered behind the closely gathered clouds giving the vaporous formations the appearance of electrified marble.

The waitress hurried across the parking lot to a near extinct Eighties compact, spackled with small, white patches of Bondo over various locations on the turd-brown body. It looked like a wild, spotted Yugo that had escaped from the junkyard.

Stephanie checked the time and began to feel antsy again. With the suitcase in hand, she hurried to her car and dropped it at the bumper before searching her purse for the keys.

Grinder's truck was parked to the left of Stephanie's car. Now that it was illuminated by the artificial glow of the overhead light, it looked as vintage as his clothes. He caught up with her as the sputtering compact zoomed past them. The suspension let out a loud metallic groan when the girl missed the graded outlet and the front wheels rolled over the curb. It sped away and the tinny whine of the engine faded out in the distance.

"You need to get out of here," he reminded her.

"What about you?"

He pulled a cluster of keys from his pocket. "I'll follow you out."

The lull in the storm was short lived as the wind fired up again. A gust rocked the trees and ushered in another bank of clouds.

"You should take this." Grinder pulled the pistol from his coat and held it out. "In case."

She looked down and shook her head. "I'm going to the airport, remember? Maybe you should keep it."

He shoved it back into his waistband.

She opened her mouth to thank him one more time, when suddenly a loud peal of thunder cut her short, or at least she thought it was thunder until she saw the bullet hole magically appear in the front fender of his truck and report back a metallic ping that was immediately followed by the hiss of air escaping from the front tire. Stephanie heard the panic in Grinder's voice as he yelled for her to run. She twisted around as a black car with heavily tinted windows rolled into the parking lot. The driver's window was slightly ajar and the smoking end of a gun poking through the gap was aimed directly at her.

She ran to the driver's side of her car and fumbled for the button that would unlock the door.

A second shot rang out. She caught the muzzle flash out of her peripheral. Grinder had fired back.

His bullet had struck the driver's window, but instead of the high velocity lump of lead piercing the glass as it should have, it left a pock mark and a frosted medallion around it. Grinder quickly fired off another shot. This time it struck the metal skin of the hood and the dark car's engine began to clank and clatter. It sputtered and died; a stream of motor oil streamed out from beneath and left a dark trail on the wet concrete. The car glided to a stop a few feet from Stephanie.

"Toss it!" The open bore of his gun remained trained on her. "Or she dies."

"He'll do it!" she said.

Grinder pitched it against the curb and it skidded along the line of concrete like a guttered bowling ball until it arrived at the grated opening and was escorted down the hollow by a steady stream of rainwater.

The driver's door popped opened and a tall man stepped out of the car. He kept the pistol leveled on Stephanie's head.

She stared back wide eyed at his rumpled clothes, disheveled hair, and slack jaw and knew it was from the alcohol and drugs she'd dosed him with. With the cell towers and GPS still on the fritz, she had no idea how her husband had located her.

"Don't look so surprised," Gerald replied. "I have my ways of knowing where you're at."

He turned the gun on Grinder. "Come stand next to her."

He obliged the man and joined Stephanie. He stood there silently staring down the open end of the barrel.

Gerald eyed Grinder suspiciously. He turned his bloodshot eyes onto Stephanie. "Is he your boyfriend or accomplice?"

"Neither," she shot back. "We just met."

He shifted his gaze back to Grinder. "I guess you had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time." Without taking the gun off Grinder he told her, "You have something that belongs to me, Steph."

She hated it when he called her that. She scowled back at him. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He snickered. "Come on, Steph."

"Don't call me that, you prick!" She couldn't help herself. Its forthcoming had been penned up inside her for along time.

"Your little undertaking was recorded on camera."

After Stephanie had retrieved the schematics for the Lipotron Bomb, she'd erased Gerald's computer's hard drive of the stolen technology he had stored to be sold to the highest bidder, but she'd forgotten to erase the cameras that had recorded the deed.

He aimed the open bore of his gun at her head. "You know this isn't going to end pretty. Don't you...Steph?" He emphasized the pronunciation of her abbreviated name with all the veracity of a schoolyard bully.

"You don't want to do this," said Grinder. "Just put the gun down."

The clatter of a four-banger engine interrupted his appeal.

The spotted Yugo seemed to come out of nowhere, whipped into the parking lot, and skidded to a stop. The waitress stared through the windshield wild-eyed at Gerald holding the gun on Grinder and Stephanie. The engine revved and the reverse lamps came on, casting a white sheen of light across the wet concrete.

"Kill the engine and get out of the car," Gerald commanded.

The tinny whine silenced and the door let out a loud groan when it opened. The waitress raised her hands above her head. "I just came back to get my purse." She lowered an arm and aimed one of her red, lacquered nails to where she'd left the leather bag sitting on the steps.

“Shut your mouth and go stand next to them,” Gerald prompted the waitress into action by pointing the gun at her.

“Oh?my God, you're as crazy as they are!" She hastily climbed out and shuttled over to Grinder and stood there shaking.

"Now," said Gerald. "Hand over the flash drive."

"I don't have it," Stephanie replied.

His cheeks flared red. "Where is it?"

"I sold it."

"She didn't sell it!" The waitress hurried over to Gerald's side and turned a pointed finger on Grinder. "He has it. In his jacket pocket."

Gerald swiftly approached Grinder, and with one sweeping blow to the head with the butt if the gun, knocked him to the ground. He quickly searched the stunned man's pockets and claimed the prize. He clutched it in his hand and returned to the grill of his car and leaned against it and stared at the threesome.

Stephanie knew what he was doing. He was sizing up the situation trying to figure out what he was going to do next. She offered him the suitcase.

"What's in it?"

"The money," replied Stephanie. "One-hundred and fifty thousand."

"The schematics to build that bomb are worth millions."

"That's all that would fit inside the suitcase."

Gerald laughed. It had a melodramatic edge to it. "Only you would settle for less, Steph."

"Just take it and let us go."

Stephanie felt a glimmer of hope as she watched Gerald mull over the situation.

Gerald turned the gun on the waitress. "Bring the suitcase to me, Princess."

Like a puppy looking for praise, the girl took quick steps back to the suitcase, impetuously grabbed the handle, and jerked it off the ground. The latch popped open. On any calm day the money would have tumbled to the ground, but a gust of wind scooped up most of the spilled contents, and they all stared in amazement as loose bills fluttered away into the night like a flock of startled birds. The grounded money scurried away until it became pasted onto the wet concrete.

Gerald scowled. "Stupid brat!" He aimed the barrel of the gun at her.

With a look of terror in her eyes and her hands in the air, the waitress backpedaled away.

A harsh white washed over them. The headlights belonged to a newer make car, a Rolls Royce. Stephanie recognized it.

Gerald's eyes filled with terror and he turned to Stephanie. "Badra?!"

The passenger door flew open and a robe-clad man popped out holding a fully automatic weapon. It was like something out of a high action flick. As screwy as the whole thing seemed, this wasn't a movie, it was real. Stephanie had been in the arms business long enough to know that the gun could reduced them into a pile of hamburger meat in a matter of seconds.

Gerald dropped his handgun.

The driver's door popped open and a woman wearing a tailor made dress stepped out. The white, sheer design accented the curves of her body and stopped short of her knees. On her feet were a pair of black shoes with stiletto heels that elevated her already tall stature. Her long, dark hair was topped with a braided gold net studded with jewels that sparkled under the glow of the lamp. She rounded the front bumper of the Rolls with the graceful moves of a cat. Her dark eyes were locked on Grinder. "On your feet, handsome."

He stood and wobbled like he might go down but recovered.

She raised her chin a notch and looked down on Gerald. "You shouldn't have tried to screw me over."

"I had nothing to do with this." Gerald pointed to Stephanie. "It was her." Gerald lowered a hand and used it to nervously fumble through his pocket. He produced the flash drive and held it out for her to see. "I got it back."

"Then give it to me."

Gerald took a few steps forward and bowed in subjugation before her with the data key extended on his palm.

Badra stared at it a moment. "If this isn't legitimate?"

"Have I ever failed you?"

A pause followed. She snatched it up. A few seconds later she shook her head. "Kill the others," she told the triggerman.

The accomplice raised his gun as Gerald stepped away.

"Wait a minute," yelled the waitress. "I ain't got nothing to do with these a-holes. I ain't never seen any of them before tonight."

Stephanie felt her heart thundering in her chest cavity as the gunman took aim. Her pulse quickened and she stopped breathing all together, but all she could focus on was Gerald's unsympathetic expression as he stood next to Badra and looked on.

A loud beep broke the intense silence. It was the device in Grinder's pocket. A rapid succession of endless beeps followed.

The gunman looked stunned and lowered his automatic weapon.

The interlude provided Stephanie with enough time to rip the device from Grinder's pocket and hold it up. A digital counter ran backwards, currently at forty-five seconds and counting. She quickly conjured up a plot that might get her out of the sticky situation. "There's a bomb in that truck and in less than a minute it's going to go off and obliterate this entire place!"

The gunman looked to Badra.

"Kill them."

"Shoot me and you'll die."

Fear crawled across the gunman's face. He lowered his weapon.

"She's lying," yelled Badra. "Shoot her!"

The man's eyes were on the counter. More seconds clicked off.

"You're almost out of time," Stephanie warned. Her ruse wasn't working, and without a backup plan, all she could hope for now was a miracle.

Badra yanked the automatic rifle from the man's petrified hands.

"Five seconds," warned Stephanie.

4?3?2?seconds passed in the time it took Badra to raise the rifle.

"Look!" The color in the waitress' cheeks was gone, and she was pointing a crooked finger at the sky.

Stephanie turned her eyes up.

On the underbelly of one of the dark clouds, a swirling vortex of blue energy formed. She stuffed the device in her purse and ran. A second later a bolt of lightning struck and a loud thunderclap rattled her bones.

Chapter 2

Dead Scarecrows and the Sheik

 


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