Supercell

Supercell

H.W. "Buzz" Bernard

November 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-339-9

They’ll pay him a fortune to find a killer tornado for their movie.

He knows the risks all too well, but he never imagined just how dangerous the perfect storm could be.


 

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Back Cover Blurb

Chuck Rittenburg was one of the most intrepid storm chasers in the country until a bad decision resulted in the death of a young couple who’d paid to ride along. A decade later—broke, divorced, and estranged from his college-age children—he’s got nothing left to lose. When a film producer offers Chuck one-million dollars to help find and photograph a deadly tornado in Oklahoma, Chuck sees a chance to earn his kids’ respect again—and maybe his own.

The situation quickly becomes about more than tracking a monster tornado for Hollywood. FBI Agent Gabi Medeiros insists on riding along. A burglary ring is targeting tornado-ravaged neighborhoods, and their tactics now include murder.

With the stage set for a major heist, a deadly supercell, and a confrontation between Man and Nature on an epic scale, Chuck and his crew will be lucky to escape in one piece.

H.W. "Buzz" Bernard is a retired meteorologist who worked for thirteen years at the Atlanta-based Weather Channel. Now he writes bestselling thriller novels, including PLAGUE and the Number One bestseller in ebook, EYEWALL. Visit him at www.buzzbernard.com


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Excerpt

Chapter One

SATURDAY, APRIL 13

CHUCK RITTENBURG, slump-shouldered, unshaven, stood on the concrete walkway in front of his dingy row-apartment in Norman, Oklahoma, sipping a Coors Light. It hadn’t always been like this, a beer for breakfast. But now... what the hell.

Pulses of warm, humid wind from the Gulf of Mexico via the Piney Woods of east Texas whipped over him, bearing away the odors of cleaning solvent and insecticide that leaked from his cheap efficiency like aerosols of despair. Something else rode the wind, too; something at once ominous and exhilarating. He’d sensed it before, many times: the threat of monstrous thunderstorms, the kind that give birth to the Grim Reapers of the Great Plains—tornadoes.

The day that had heralded the unraveling of his life had begun like this... a decade ago. The image of what happened that day was seared into his memory like a psychic scar, one that would never heal, never stop hurting, never allow him to raise an emotional white flag and say I surrender, let this be the end of it. Instead, it clung to him like psychological leg irons, reminding him constantly of all he once had but had no more.

HE’D BEEN DRIVING the lead van of two belonging to Thunder Road Tours, his eminently successful tornado chasing operation. The vans had stopped on a shelf of high ground in Oklahoma’s Glass Mountains, a rugged, semiarid landscape of mesas and buttes in the western part of the state. A line of thunderstorms, like slow-motion, alabaster napalm explosions, billowed along a dryline advancing out of the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles.

A dozen chasers, tourists really, each having shelled out over two grand for the privilege of getting intimate with a tornado, piled out of the vans to watch the closest cell a few miles to their west. A visibly imposing, low-hanging bulwark of blackness, the wall cloud, rotated counterclockwise beneath the towering storm.

"Looks like it’s about to drop a funnel,” Chuck’s partner, Mac Beauchamp yelled, his gaze on the right rear flank of the thunderstorm. A wind-borne rumble of thunder almost blotted out his words.

A bolt of lightning lanced out of the storm onto a nearby mesa, immolating a scrubby pine and simultaneously launching an artillery-like explosion of sound.

"Back in the vans,” Chuck screamed. "Now!”

The chasers scrambled back into the vehicles. All except for two: a young man and his girlfriend. The man, from the West Coast and perhaps unfamiliar with the dangers of lightning, didn’t heed Chuck’s command. Instead, he pointed a digital camera at the cauldron of clouds and snapped a series of photographs. His lady friend stood beside him, her head dipped into the wind, her blond hair whipping around her face.

Chuck waited a moment, then stepped from the driver’s seat of the van onto its running board and yelled at the two stragglers. But he was a heartbeat too slow.

The man turned and looked at Chuck. It was that image that Chuck knew he would carry with him the rest of his days: the man’s electrically-charged hair standing on end, his eyes pleading, his mouth wide with unspoken thoughts—secrets only a man who knows he has a millisecond to live can harbor. The brilliant stroke hit him square, knocking him out of his shoes and throwing him yards away as if he were no more than a stuffed toy.

His girlfriend passed to the next realm with him. She didn’t even have time to look up. She jerked spasmodically as the dart of lightning struck, then crumpled into a heap, dead before she hit the ground.

In tandem with the fatal harpoon of electricity, thunder erupted in an ear-splitting barrage and rolled across the barren landscape for several seconds, like tympani for a dirge.

Between the two bodies, a shallow, smoking crevasse lay in zig-zag repose across the gravelly surface, a final, eternal link between the young man and his lady friend.

CHUCK TOOK A SWIG of his Coors and stared across the parking lot in front of his apartment. The lot remained filled with cars—Saturday morning. Not too many people going to work, transporting their kids to school, or setting out for classes at the nearby University of Oklahoma.

He didn’t realize at the time, on that day ten years ago, but the deadly lightning bolt claimed not only the lives of the young man and his lady, but his as well. Not in a physical sense, of course, but in all aspects of his life that mattered. Even though his company was covered by liability insurance and waiver forms, slick, predatory personal injury lawyers and the spiraling cost of mounting a defense forced Thunder Road Tours into bankruptcy. Chuck lost not just his company but, in quick succession, his savings, home, and wife.

Suzanne, his wife, had been unable to adapt to their new status as "have nots,” and after a brief affair with a former boyfriend, she and Chuck divorced.

His nineteen-year-old son, Ty, with whom he’d always had an arm’s-length and contentious relationship—undoubtedly a contributing factor to the animus in his marriage—had stormed out of his life accusing Chuck of "blowing my college money chasing clouds.”

His daughter, Arlene, seventeen, had moved with her mother back to her mother’s native Virginia. There was no doubt in Chuck’s mind he would have been helpless attempting to raise a teenage daughter with his life in shambles. He’d kept in close touch with her, however, talking on the phone with her at least once a week during her high school and college years. Until she was 21, he’d dutifully delivered what little child support he could muster by working as head custodian at a local middle school and at various odd jobs, all of them menial. Even now he and Arlene remained in touch, though less frequently, as she busied her life carving out a career in public relations and attempting to find "the right guy.”

Chuck turned as the man who lived in the apartment next to him stuck his head out the door, stooped to retrieve the morning newspaper, and said, "Buenos días, amigo.”

Chuck nodded. He didn’t know the guy’s name, nor those of his wife and three kids. Probably illegals. He seated himself on the steps leading to his apartment and placed the beer beside him. Empty paper cups and styrofoam hamburger containers tumbled across the parking lot, driven by the fitful wind. A small whirl of dust chased a mangy-looking dog toward the main street.

A black SUV, a Lincoln Navigator, turned into the lot and eased along the row of apartments where Chuck lived. Looking for a specific unit, he guessed. The Lincoln coasted to a stop behind the vehicles jammed into the narrow parking slots directly in front of where Chuck sat. He watched as the front driver-side window of the SUV opened. A well-groomed man with a broad face and full black beard, wearing a white Greek fisherman’s cap, leaned his head out.

"Looking for apartment 3A,” he said.

"Guess you found it,” Chuck answered. He remained seated.

"Charles Rittenburg?” the man asked.

Shit, not another fucking lawyer. "Who wants to know?”

The man scratched his nose, perhaps buying time to formulate a response, then laughed softly. "I come in peace, Mr. Rittenburg. With an offer of employment.”

"I’ve got a job.”

The man looked down at something on the passenger seat, then moved his gaze back to Chuck.

"Pushing a broom at Kiowa Trails Middle School?” he said.

Chuck didn’t answer.

"Oh. Almost forgot. You’ve got a summer gig ushering at RedHawks Field. Big-time stuff. The team must draw what, four, five thousand per game? You gotta be raking in the dough from that.”

Chuck fingered his beer. "Who are you?”

"Jerry Metcalf,” the man said. "How about I buy you breakfast?”

Chuck held up the Coors Light. "Got it,” he said.

The man shut off the Navigator’s engine. "Not exactly the Breakfast of Champions.”

"Then I guess it fits.”

"I passed a Waffle House when I got off the Interstate. How about it?”

The dog shooed away by the dust devil earlier returned and crept toward Chuck, stalking the beer can but probably hoping there were some accompaniments nearby—pretzels or chips or popcorn.

Chuck stood and, carrying the Coors, turned to go into his apartment. "Not interested,” he said.

The Lincoln’s door opened, then slammed shut.

"Hear me out,” Metcalf said. "I’m from Global-American Cinema. I’d like to hire you as a consultant for a film.”

Chuck pivoted to face Metcalf, a large man, overweight, with an odd sense of style: In addition to the fisherman’s cap, he wore a white dress shirt with epaulets, cargo shorts and Timberland hiking boots.

"Don’t know anything about movies,” Chuck said.

Metcalf stood on the short walkway leading to Chuck’s apartment. "Yes,” he countered, "but you know about tornadoes.”

"Not anymore.”

"Bullshit, if you’ll pardon my French, sir. You were the best chaser in the business. Charles Rittenburg: The Great White Hunter of Tornadoes. That’s what you were called, wasn’t it? You were a guest on ‘The Today Show,’ ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘60 Minutes,’ and The Weather Channel. You were featured in USA Today and Peoplemagazine. Don’t blow smoke up my ass. Chasing storms isn’t a skill you lose overnight or even in the depths of a beer can. Hell, I know you’ve kept up with stuff because I saw you as a talking head on CNN and Fox after the Joplin disaster, in the wake of the Dixie tornado swarm in 2011, and then Moore in 2013. Jesus, that was close to home wasn't it?" He paused, seemingly thoughtfully, then shook his head. "Ya know, Charlie, I don't understand why anybody would want to live in a place like this."

"A place like this," Chuck responded, a hard frost on his words, "is where a lot of people choose to live. It's good country with good people. As far as keeping my hand in the business, I did that as a hobby until my laptop went tits-up last year. I haven’t been able to afford a new one. Look, I can’t help you, Mr. Metcalf. And something else, just for the record. I like to kick off my day with a Coors, you know, smooth the rough edges. It’s my first and last of the day. I’m not a boozer. By the way, it’s Chuck, not Charlie.”

"Sorry,” Metcalf said. "Look, I know some heavy-duty shit came down on you. Life’s unfair and all that crap. But I’m offering you a chance to even the score.”

Chuck opened the door to his apartment. "Life only works out like that in the movies,” he said.

"Exactly.” Metcalf paused. "Did I mention I represent a film company?” He smiled broadly. Chuck could have sworn the man’s teeth sparkled in the low-angled morning sunlight.

The mangy dog, some sort of terrier-Lab mix, settled onto its stomach and watched the exchange between the two men.

Chuck glanced at the mutt, then at Metcalf. "Like I said, I can’t help you.”

"Help yourself then.”

"I’ve never been good at that.”

"You’ve given up?”

Chuck shook his head. "I’m just tired. Tired of fighting lawyers. Tired of arguing with bill collectors. Tired of explaining to others how my life got so fucked up.” He stepped into his unit and slammed the door.

Metcalf’s voice carried into the apartment. "I’m going to tape an envelope to your door, Chuck. The envelope contains a proposal from Global-American Cinema. Take a look at it, then decide how tired you are.”

Metcalf paused as if waiting for a response. But Chuck said nothing. Metcalf continued. "I’m staying at the Colcord Hotel in Oklahoma City. I’ve attached my business card to the proposal and put my room number on it. Give me a call after you’ve read what we’re offering. I think you’ll change your mind.”

Chuck still didn’t respond.

"Okay. I know you can hear me,” Metcalf said. "I’m leaving now. But I’ll be in the area for a couple of days.”

Chuck stood near the door, gripping his beer can, waiting for Metcalf to depart.

"Two weeks’ work, Chuck. And an opportunity to make more money than you probably ever netted in a year from Thunder Road Tours.” Metcalf fell silent briefly, then added, "A chance at redemption, too, my friend, if you’re interested.”

Metcalf’s footfalls retreated from the door. Chuck stepped to the front window of his unit, parted the stained venetian blinds, and watched as Metcalf climbed into his Navigator and drove off.

Chuck drained the rest of his Coors from the can, tossed the empty container into the trash, and settled into a tattered, faded armchair, Goodwill-issue, in front of his TV set. He clicked it on with his remote and watched a meteorologist with a manufactured grim-faced expression explain there was a threat of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes later in the day.

Chuck switched the channel to ESPN to check out how the Royals had done in their first home stand of the season. He’d become a Royals fan when he lived in Kansas City from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s working at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center, now called the Storm Prediction Center.

He’d moved to the Oklahoma City area in 1996 and started Thunder Road Tours. Success came rapidly and he spun off a subsidiary, Cat Five Tours, to pursue hurricanes. But his life and business and everything else had imploded with the lightning strike in the Glass Mountains.

Some things, apparently, were never meant to be.

He stood, retrieved another beer from the refrigerator, and plopped back into the ratty chair. Normally, as he’d told Metcalf, a single beer was his limit, but today... too much melancholia. He changed channels again and found an old Tarzan movie. He watched the film disinterestedly and sipped his beer until he dozed off, his chin resting on his chest, like a geezer in a retirement home.

He awoke with a start, realizing it was almost noon. The Coors can, half empty, sat on the floor beside him. The Tarzan film had morphed into an old Western, something starring Randolph Scott.

Chuck rose unsteadily, stretched, and poured the remaining beer into a soiled sink cluttered with unwashed dishes and a deceased cockroach. He exhumed his wallet from beneath a pile of dirty clothes in his bedroom. He opened it. Eight bucks. At least enough for lunch at McDonald’s.

He opened the front door. A gust of wind darted into his apartment like a refugee seeking asylum. A piece of Scotch tape, nothing fastened to it, clung forlornly to the exterior of the door. The proposal. He’d forgotten about it. Well, it didn’t matter now. The wind had taken it. The story of his life. Some things never change. Que sera, sera.

He shrugged, shut the door and headed toward McDonalds, dodging a dozen kids on trikes and skateboards monopolizing the sidewalk. He headed west, noting with a meteorologist’s practiced eye towering cumulus clouds in the middle distance, billowing skyward.

Something brushed against his leg. He looked down. The mutt that had been hanging around the apartments earlier trotted beside him, a white business envelope clamped in its mouth.

The dog stopped, dropped the envelope at Chuck’s feet, and waited expectantly, its head tilted to one side, probably hoping for a game of toss and fetch.

"Not today, doggy,” Chuck said. "Beat it.”

He continued walking.

The dog did, too, envelope again in its slobbery mouth.

"Hit the road, Jack. If you’re counting on lunch, I can barely afford to feed myself.”

Once more, the mutt dropped the envelope. This time, Chuck saw a name embossed on its upper-left hand corner: Global-American Cinema. He picked it up. The dog yapped and ran off a short distance, waiting for Chuck to lob the thing.

Instead, Chuck opened it and extracted three sheets of paper pitted with teeth marks, the proposal that Metcalf had taped to his door. He looked down at the dog, who stared back with big brown eyes almost hidden behind a tangle of matted fur.

"Whaddaya think, pooch, worth looking at?”

The dog cocked its head in a quizzical pose.

"Well, que sera, sera,” Chuck said, and began to read.

When he came to the paragraph spelling out the amount of money being offered, he jerked his head up and glanced around, certain he was being set up as the butt of a TV gag show.


 

 

Chapter Two

SATURDAY, APRIL 13

CHUCK SAT AT his kitchen table, a battle-scarred throwback to the 1950s, munched on the grilled chicken sandwich and fries he’d picked up at McDonalds, and reviewed, for the third time, Metcalf’s stunning proposal.

Finished, he picked up the business card the man had left and dialed the number of the Colcord Hotel. He asked for Metcalf’s room. The film company rep picked up almost immediately.

"I knew you’d call,” he said. Chatter from a TV program filled the background.

"I wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t been for Jack.”

"Who?”

"My new best friend.”

The dog, the one that Chuck had told earlier to "Hit the road Jack,” crawled from beneath the table. Bits of chicken clung to the knotted fur beneath its chin.

"Well, good for Jack, whoever he is,” Metcalf said. "Look, when can we start? The producers are anxious to get going on this.”

"I’m not starting,” Chuck said. "I’m not signing on. The stipulations you laid out are ridiculous—”

"What’s ridiculous about $500,000, Charlie... Chuck?”

"Nothing. I said the stipulations are absurd.”

"Finding us a violent, photogenic tornado within two weeks? From what I’ve heard, you ought to be able to do that in your sleep.”

"Yes, that’s what I do... or did, find tornadoes. But the proposal specifically states I have to find an EF-4 or -5 within two weeks or I don’t collect the commission. Bottom line: There’s a 99 percent probability I don’t get shit. Actually, less than that, since you’re giving me only fourteen days.”

Metcalf started to speak, but Chuck ignored him and continued talking.

"We’re not hunting deer, Mr. Metcalf. Deer are always out there somewhere. It’s just a matter of locating them. Not so with tornadoes. It’s possible we could select a two-week period and come up empty. If atmospheric conditions aren’t right, there aren’t any tornadoes. Let alone an EF-4 or -5, which represent less than one percent of all twisters. That means out of every 100-plus tornadoes, only one is going to meet your criterion.”

"I know what it means, Chuckie. But here’s the one-time good deal for you: You select the time frame.”

"Not really. The proposal states completion by mid-May. So you’re really offering me just a four-week window to pick from.”

Metcalf expelled a long breath. Exasperation. "Jesus. You act like you don’t need the money.”

"What I don’t need is the frustration, the hassle.”

"Come on, man—”

"And besides,” Chuck interrupted, "you never know what you’re dealing with until after the fact. Contrary to what’s been depicted in movies, you can’t judge the category of a tornado just by looking at it. The biggest, blackest wedge in the world can look like the Tornado that Ate Toledo and turns out be an EF-2. Tornadoes are classified by the damage they do, not their appearance. Categorization requires a post-storm survey.”

Jack rested his chin on Chuck’s shoe.

"Don’t forget about your consultant’s fee,” Metcalf said. "A thousand bucks a day. That’s $14,000 even if Mother Nature screws us.”

"Screws me, you mean. It’d be penny wise and pound foolish. If I’m MIA from my job at the school for two weeks, I’ve lost it. Nope, count me out. Find yourself another chaser. There are plenty out there.”

"My instructions were to get you.”

"Yeah,” Chuck said, "but you don’t want someone with my reputation.” He hung up.

Immediately, the phone rang back. Chuck waited seven rings, then picked up.

"Leave me alone,” he said.

"No,” Metcalf said. "I won’t. I’m going to sweeten the pot. A million bucks. You find me and my film crew what we want and you get a check for more money than you’ve ever seen.”

Silence ensued on both ends of the line. Chuck sucked in a deep lungful of air, not quite sure he’d heard right.

Finally he asked, "How much?”

"One million dollars.”

"You toss that figure around like it was Monopoly money.”

"This is Hollywood, Chuck. Everything is make-believe and fantasy. Only the money is real. Hop on board.”

"The odds are still against me.”

"The odds are always against everyone.”

"Let me think about it. I’ll call you back.”

"No. Don’t think about it. Don’t convince yourself this isn’t your due, that fate is stacked against you, that bad karma is part of your genetic make-up. You’re the once and future king, man. You can do it. And even if you somehow feel you’re ‘unworthy,’ that you aren’t among the chosen, that there is no pot of Benjamin Franklins at the end of a rainbow, then maybe there’s someone else in your past you could carry the flag for.

"Look, I know a lot about you, Chuck. I know the jackals, the lawyers, got to you; bankrupted your business—chapter 7, forced you into personal bankruptcy. Your house was foreclosed; your wife couldn’t take it, had an affair with an old flame; you got divorced and in the process had to let your daughter go, too. Then there’s your son... well, things were never good there, were they?

"Whaddaya say, partner? Unto the breach?”

Chuck moved his gaze to a row of framed photographs hanging on the living room wall. Dust coated the frames. A compound fracture, like forked lightning, split the piece of glass covering his wife’s picture. Appropriate.

And appropriate, too, that all the portraits were layered in dust, as though lost in the dry haze of time. Ancient history. Hieroglyphics on a caveman’s wall.

"Yeah,” Chuck said. "Unto the breach.”

"I’ll bring the contract by this afternoon,” Metcalf said.

METCALF SHOWED UP at three o’clock with the documents.

Chuck leafed through them, making a cursory examination.

"Do I need a lawyer?” he asked.

Metcalf rocked back in his chair and rumbled with laughter, sending Jack scurrying into a far corner of the room.

"Who do you think will screw you worse, my friend,” Metcalf said after his guffawing subsided into winded gasps, "me or some shark who has ‘Esquire’ appended to his name?”

"I’ll take my chances with you,” Chuck said. "Where do I sign?”

Metcalf pointed out all the places. Chuck pushed the papers back to Metcalf when he was finished.

"When do we start?” he asked.

"As I said earlier, that’s up to you, Chuck. We did our research and learned that mid-April through mid-May is prime time for the biggest, baddest twisters in Oklahoma—”

"That’s where the film is set, in Oklahoma?”

"More or less. On the Great Plains. Anyhow, we figure you can narrow down the best time to go hunting to a two-week block.”

Chuck shrugged. "We’ll see. But why two weeks? Why the mid-May deadline? The nastiest storms might not show up until after that.”

Metcalf flipped through the contract documents, stuffed most of them into his briefcase, and slid several sheets of paper back across the table to Chuck.

"Your copies,” he said. "And to answer your question, we’re on a tight schedule. Blow it and we’re blowing money. The producers get really pissy if we start flushing dollars down the dumper.”

"Why not just use some stock footage of tornadoes? Lots of that around.”

"We want 35-millimeter, high-def digital imagery shot by experienced cinematographers. Not some grainy crap captured by amateurs on a cell phone. We’ll be using three Panavision Genesis cameras, gold-standard systems. Two of ’em will be truck-mounted, the third available for Steadicam use. And by the way, for logistical purposes, we’ll need about a five-day heads-up.”

"What?”

"We’ll need five days to get the equipment mounted, secured, and staged.”

"Staged?”

"From Southern Cal to Ok City.”

"Shit. You didn’t tell me that. Now you’re asking me to make a three-week outlook instead of a two-week prediction. Half the time we can’t even get it right at five days.”

Metcalf raked his fingers through his thick beard, as though pondering the statement. "Maybe you shouldhave hired a lawyer,” he said. He tapped the briefcase containing the signed contract. "Too late. But that’s why we hired you, Charlie—”

"Chuck.”

"Chuck. Because we think you can beat the odds and get us into position to get the best damn footage of tornadoes ever shot.”

Jack stood, passed gas, sat, and scratched at something behind his ear.

"Nice pet you’ve got there,” Metcalf said. "Maybe you should send him to charm school.”

"He’s the reason you’re sitting here,” Chuck said, and told Metcalf the story about how Jack had rescued the proposal.

When he finished, Metcalf stood and lumbered over to where Jack dozed.

"Good pooch,” he said and bent to stroke his head. "You saved me from getting skewered by my bosses.”

Jack rolled over and spread his legs, perhaps waiting for a tummy rub.

"Find yourself a boyfriend,” Metcalf muttered. He turned to Chuck. "I don’t think she’s a ‘Jack’.”

He walked back to the table and sat. "Let’s go over some details,” he said.

They spent the next hour discussing the logistics of the chase, including communications, chains of command, and safety, a subject Chuck insisted be covered thoroughly.

"I know you guys won’t sue me if something goes wrong,” Chuck said, "blood-from-a-stone and all that. But I don’t want to witness ever again what I did ten years ago.”

Metcalf nodded. "I understand.”

He handed Chuck a card with five telephone numbers on it. "When you see the day for the Great Hunt looming, give me a call. Start with the first number and work your way down the list. Sooner or later you’ll reach me, or someone who knows how, and I’ll have my crew here in five days.”

"Yeah,” Chuck said without enthusiasm.

"Oh, come on, Chuck. This will be the greatest adventure of your life.”

"I’ve already had that, thanks.”

Jack, who’d been sleeping in the kitchen, suddenly awakened and stalked toward the front door, growling, ears pinned back. The low rumbling from her throat seemed more a warning than a threat.

"What’s wrong with him... her?” Metcalf said.

"How would I know? I didn’t even know he’s a she.”

Chuck cracked open the door and looked out. The wind, stronger now, moaned through the apartment complex. Far to the west, pulses of lightning danced through the tops of clouds that lined the distant horizon like dusky mountain peaks

Chuck opened the door wider and looked up. Overhead, a milky gauze—cirrus from thunderstorm anvils—veiled the sky. He studied the motion of the high, thin clouds for several moments.

"What is it?” Metcalf asked, coming up behind Chuck.

Chuck pointed west. "What we’re going to be pursuing. Supercells. The big-boy thunderstorms that drop tornadoes.”

Metcalf looked down at Jack, who stood by Chuck’s leg, nose held high as if sniffing the wind for danger. She let loose a series of short, sharp barks.

"Well, she’s either Jackie or... hey, how about Stormy? Like some North Hollywood stripper?”

Chuck looked askance at Metcalf.

"Not me,” he said. He clapped his hand over his heart as if offended. "I don’t hang out at bazonga bars. I just hear stuff.”

"Okay. Stormy. Sure. Stormy the Weather Wonder Dog.”

"She looks like she’s been living in a garbage dump,” Metcalf said. "You’d better get her cleaned up.”

"I can’t afford it.”

"Now you can. Here’s an advance on your consultant’s fee.” Metcalf fished three one-hundred dollar bills from his wallet.

Chuck shook his head, declining the offer.

"You don’t want my money?”

"I don’t want your condescension.”

Metcalf cocked his head at him.

"I don’t need money to get some stray mutt a bath,” Chuck said. "I need money to help me get back on my professional feet.”

"Okay. How much?”

"My consultant’s fee up front. All of it.”

Metalf stared at him, a hard-eyed squint.

"I can’t go tornado chasing without technology,” Chuck said. "I’ll need a couple of high-end laptops, a GPS navigation system, a whizbang iPhone—”

Metcalf attempted to interrupt, but Chuck ignored him.

"—plus subscriptions to meteorological forecast models and real-time weather radar feeds.”

"Wasn’t in the contract,” Metcalf snapped.

"Well, fine, Mr. Hollywood. We’ll just tootle aimlessly around the High Plains for two weeks searching for nymphocumulus.”

"Nympho-what?”

"Big fucking clouds. That’ll be the best I’ll be able to do flying blind.”

Stormy, formerly Jack, turned away from the door and sniffed Metcalf’s shoes.

"So, you want $14,000 just like that?” He looked down at Stormy. "She’s not gonna piss on me, is she?”

"Only if you don’t come up with the money. Look, I’m not gonna skip town and take up with some Mexican honey in Acapulco on a measly fourteen thousand dollars. It’ll be money well spent, believe me.”

Metcalf eyed Stormy who stared back.

"Consider the check in the mail,” Metcalf said.

Stormy stalked off.

"I’ll get busy,” Chuck said.

Metcalf extended his hand. "Nice to know you’ve still got some moxie left,” he said.

The men shook on the deal.

"One final thing,” Metcalf said. "Just curious. What changed your mind about the deal? Most people would pee in their pants from excitement if they were offered a chance at a million bucks. Not you. You were kicking and screaming to stay away from it. Then you grabbed at it. I have a feeling it wasn’t my persuasive argument. What was it?”

Chuck studied the tops of the distant supercells for a while before answering. Then he said, "My son.”

"Your son? A guy you haven’t seen in eight years?” The words came out as if Metcalf were issuing an indictment.

Chuck nodded, but didn’t turn to face Metcalf.

 


 

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September 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-176-0

Atlanta is targeted as Ground Zero for the most horrifying plague in modern times.

Our Price: US$14.95

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