Authors: Robert Pobi
22,216 Statute Miles Above the Atlantic Ocean
Sent into space during the height of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the geostationary satellite began its life as a tool of the Cold War, using thermal imaging to track nuclear submarines via the heat generated by their reactors. Under the watchful eye of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, the satellite—internally designated
—was launched in early 1985. A few months later, perestroika began, and the Iron Curtain quickly started to show signs of metal fatigue. But Loki continued to track Soviet naval traffic in the Atlantic for eight more years, until the SDIO was retooled as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization under President Clinton’s administration. The satellite, written off the books as so much obsolete space garbage, was donated to the National Hurricane Center, and retasked to serve the people of the United States in spying on a less predictable adversary—Mother Nature.
Now, a quarter-century after it had been launched, and performing a task for which it had not been designed, Loki’s unfeeling eyes stared down at the planet from its vantage point in space. Its taskmasters had focused its vast array of attention on a massive weather system that had somehow sprung to life nine days ago off the coast of Africa, gorging itself on heat and seawater, growing into a Category 5 hurricane—a hurricane now called Dylan.
Loki’s data showed that in the past five hours, the distance from Dylan’s center to his outermost closed isobar was nearly nine degrees of latitude. Dylan was now the largest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, with a diameter of more than 1,200 miles. This data in itself would usually have been enough to cause a panic at the National Hurricane Center, but Dylan was not yet finished reaching into its bag of dirty tricks.
Dylan soon began to generate massive vertical winds. These winds carried particles of water off the ocean up through the body of the storm with a force stronger than regular evaporation by orders of magnitude. As these vertical wind-driven water particles, known to meteorologists as hydrometeors, were slammed upward, they rubbed against one another. This friction generated a charge in the water particles. The hydrometeors separated by weight and charge—the negatively charged (and heavy) particles dropped to the lower regions of the hurricane, and the positively charged (and lighter) particles rose to the top of the massive storm turbine. This separation of positively and negatively charged water molecules created a new weapons system for the hurricane.
Dylan had just gone electric.
Hauser slammed through the doors and chewed up linoleum with an efficient long-legged stride. He was trying to burn off the sickening thud that had blossomed in his chest just after Dr. Reagan had pulled the plastic sheet off the three-foot chunk of bled meat that used to be a living, breathing child. Hauser’s hand was still clamped around the rubber grip of his Sig and the muscles in his long jaw pulsed like snakes under his skin. For the first time he could recall he wished he had chosen another type of work. Contracting, maybe. He had always liked taping sheetrock—the pay wasn’t bad and you never took your work home with you at night.
And it beat the hell out of looking at skinned children.
A half-dozen reporters sprang up in his path, microphones out, the bright lights from the cameras actually heating his skin. Hauser stopped, took a deep breath, and tried to look calm. “I will have a press release for you in exactly thirty minutes.”
“Have the autopsies been completed?”
“Do you have any suspects?”
“Can you release their names?”
Hauser stared down the cameras and said, “Give me half an hour to get a statement together. I promise that this will be the first release of many. Please make sure you all leave your coordinates—including your producers’ coordinates—at the front desk. We
keep you informed.” He turned away and plowed into his office, irritated at the gratitude he felt toward Jake for prepping him in how to deal with the media; without Jake’s coaching, Hauser knew he would have already fucked his relationship with the news teams six ways past repairable. And he didn’t want to confuse gratitude with
. He didn’t want to like Jake. Not one little bit.
The sheriff stopped at his receptionist’s desk. “I have to put a statement together for the double homicide. Give me twenty-five minutes to write it up and you can type it and print it up for me. While I’m working on it, I need everything you have on the Coleridge family. I know Mrs. Coleridge had some sort of an accident. I want everything there is.”
Jeannine uh-huhed and no-problemed, and for a bright angry second Hauser wanted to drag her by her hair down to the lab so she could look at the kid who had been peeled like a piece of squirming screaming fruit to see if she could keep that same bored-to-death timbre in her voice. Instead, he walked into his office and kicked the door shut.
He went to the bar, pulled out a glass, and poured himself a caffeine-free Coke from the little stainless fridge his wife had bought him as a birthday gift last year. When he had downed the can, he popped another. Then burped.
Dr. Reagan had been very precise with her diction.
was too blunt a term for a profession as elegant as forensic pathology so she had opted for
instead. Who used words like that? While sipping a cold coffee and standing over a kid who—at only three feet tall—still managed to make all the multibody car wrecks of the past year look like underachievers.
First he had de-epithelialized the son—they knew this because the mother’s blood was all over the child, but the child’s blood was absent from the mother (except the palms of her hands). Madame X had been held down while someone peeled her kid. This one took the
Best in Show
trophy. Maybe even a
Lifetime Achievement Award
. It was the saddest thing he had ever taken part in. How the fuck did you word something like that for those press assholes? He had seen other sheriffs thrust into the national spotlight. He had watched the police chief of Montgomery County, Charles Moose, examined ten times a day for three solid months. Jake had taught him how to avoid that, completely, by making it clear that the only rules were
rules, and that he’d throw anyone who got in the way of his investigation in jail and deal with the courts as soon as he was finished with the case. So he had followed Jake’s lead and laid it out with conviction. Because when that freaky-deaky, heebie-jeebie tattoo freak opened his mouth, he seemed to be channeling from the other side. And that worried Hauser. Maybe even frightened him a little.
But what Hauser needed right now was to clear his head for this press release. He had to take his mind off of the cluster-fuck he felt brewing. Dr. Sobel had taught him to relax by focusing on something that he saw as a mini vacation. Hauser had thought of it as so much touchy-feely bullshit, but one afternoon after a particularly grueling day, he had tried it, recalling Sobel’s Ginsbergian delivery.
When the going gets rough, take a little time for yourself—focus on something that makes you feel good.
And with this fruity talk ringing in his ears, Hauser had taught himself to relax by spending time with his hunting trophies.
The centerpiece of the paneled wall behind his desk was the big buck he had taken up near Albany four falls back. He was a beautiful mount, a nine-pointer, and the cleaning staff had very specific instructions on how to dust him. Flanking the buck were two shoulder-mounted black bears, both taken on a bow. Near the coat rack was the head of a Dall sheep he had bagged on his trip to Sitka, Alaska, during a sheriffs’ convention last fall. And by the window, surveying the office with those two huge brown eyes, was Bernie, a big bull moose.
Hauser still felt that the space was incomplete without an elk, and he had been planning an elk trip with Martin, his brother-in-law, for some time. They were supposed to leave in two days. Now, with a double homicide on his lawn and a storm rolling in, he had to call Martin to cancel; Martin lived in Arizona and would that’s-too-bad and what-a-shame him for a few minutes before calling one of his rich golf buddies to step in and pinch-hit. And Hauser’d have to wait until next year for that elk. Sonofabitch.
The sheriff reached out and stroked the fur of the big buck, concentrating on his breathing. To Hauser, this was how his wife described yoga. He stood there, staring into the lifeless glass eyeballs, thinking about hunting and feeling like a stereotype.
Five minutes later, Jeannine came in, carrying a folded banker’s box that was jury-rigged with at least three kinds of tape and looked like it was stretching her arms while simultaneously clamping her breasts together. “There are two more, let me know when you want them.” Her tone said she was not particularly thrilled about another trip to the archive room to carry a forty-pound box.
“Bring the other two up,” he said, not quite grumbling but coming close.
Jeannine nodded, popped her gum, and dropped the heavy box down on the corner of his desk. Hauser was surprised that no dust puffed out. She shut the door when she left.
He picked up one of the yellow legal pads he liked to use for notes, and tried to come up with a statement that would in no way compromise any of the secrecy that an investigation of this type depended on. Cole had said to keep the media fed reliably so they could educate the public about what had happened and at the same time solicit information that might help advance the case. Sure. Easy. A child could write it. Suddenly Hauser regretted his football scholarship.
He had managed to get the words,
In an effort to keep the public informed
, down, then the phone lit up.
“What?” he snapped.
“There’s a Mr. Ken Dennison on the line. He’s with the National Hurricane Center. Says he needs to talk to you right now.”
Hauser’s brow knitted up. “You sure he’s not media?”
“He said it was the most important call of the day.”
Hauser put the cap on his pen and tossed it onto the desk even though he was unconvinced—anything was better than trying to come up with a prime-time version of what had happened at the house up the beach. “Put him through.”
In three seconds Mr. Dennison was introducing himself. “Carl Dennison, Sheriff Hauser. I’m with the National Hurricane Center. Advance warning department. We have news on Dylan.”
He said, “Yeah,” like he could care less.
“It’s headed straight for your doorstep. All our computer models say you’re the landfall point.”
“Sheriff, are you familiar with the hurricane of 1938?”
Hauser hadn’t been born in 1938 but the storm had been so devastating that it was still the benchmark against which every storm in the area was judged. He had grown up knowing all the horror stories, the most frightening being how the Westhampton cinema had been washed out to sea, killing twenty cinemagoers and the projectionist. As far as natural disasters went, it was a hard one to beat. “Of course.”
“When that hit the US, it had softened from a Cat Five to a Cat Three. I don’t think we are going to be as lucky with this one.”
Hauser squeezed the bridge of his nose. He didn’t like hearing the word lucky applied to the big one of 1938. He said, “Shit,” again.
“We don’t see any way it is going to cool down enough to burn off any of its energy before it hits you. This is going to sound a little funny, but you are going to need walkie-talkies.”
“Walkie-talkies? You’re kidding, right?”
“Sheriff, the magnitude of what’s heading your way is something that there are no recorded benchmarks for. Dylan generates more electricity in a minute than a Westinghouse nuclear reactor puts out in a week.”
“Whoa, whoa,” Hauser held up his hand, trying to stave off bad news. “Hurricanes don’t have lightning.”
“You need new data. Rita, Emily, and Katrina—three of the most powerful storms of 2005—were all electrical hurricanes. The satellites are picking up flashes in the wall of Dylan’s eye that are probably the largest in recorded history. Per meter he probably measures fifty percent stronger than the worst of mesoscale thunderstorms. And he’s twelve thousand percent larger than any thunderstorm on record. You can expect lightning like no one’s ever seen before, Sheriff.”
There was something else in Dennison’s voice, something behind the bad news. It wasn’t huge, but it was important, because Hauser could hear it; he was used to listening to what people said between their lines of dialogue. “What are you
telling me?” Hauser asked.
“This is about two hours before we are past the tipping point, but everything says you are going to be asked to evacuate your county. I’d start now if I were you. Just get everyone the fuck out, excuse my frankness.”
Hauser wanted to say that Montauk wasn’t like New Orleans, where the poor would be left behind and nobody would be to blame. No, here the out-of-work fishermen and the old canning-factory layoffs would love to take a trip on a government bus to a week in a gymnasium in some other state where they could get free coffee and play cards all day. Maybe get new sneakers. No, it would be the rich who would refuse to go. A lot of them felt that their wealth entitled them to some sort of divine protection. “I could try. And I’d get some people out. A lot of people would refuse to leave their—” he paused, trying to find another word for stuff—“
” he said.
Dennison uh-huhed, and said, “Print up flyers, distribute them by hand. Use manpower for that. Tell them you need their signatures if they are going to stay. There is no guarantee that there will be any emergency services once the storm makes landfall. Spell it out that they are risking their lives if they stay. Let them know that the power grid will probably fail. Land telephone lines will stop like a dead heart. I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but you have to listen to me. The electromagnetic field that this storm will generate is going to fry all antennas, including cell phone towers. Forget iPhones. Forget BlackBerries. Forget the goddamned Motorola brick. No more communication. Grid-based electronics will go, everything plugged into an outlet will simply overload and die in a single flash of lightning that could be the largest in history. Even the surge-protected circuits will go. I hope we’re wrong, I really do. But this is one of those times when the Boy Scout motto applies. Get all of your people together ASAP and get a working plan of defense into action. Talk to your citizens. We have a media branch that can help you get a website up to help with inquiries, otherwise you and your people will spend the next two days answering the same questions over and over and over and you need that time to get your citizenry out of there. If I had anyone I loved out on that narrow isthmus facing Dylan, I’d get them inland as fast as I could.”
Hauser was still trying to absorb the walkie-talkie advice. “I appreciate the call.”
“I left my number with your receptionist and we’ve sent full contact packages to the email address of every civil servant in your area. If you can, get another branch of the city to print the flyers and donate personnel to handing them out. The library or post office. That would be smart. Get them all orange highway vests and a flashlight; Swiss Army knife; name tag—people just fucking love name tags; and all the damned coffee they can drink. Call me directly if you need help, I’ll be at the office until Dylan dies out. And please, use our media package. Get a website up fast—these days, if it’s not on the web, people don’t believe that it exists.”
Hauser hung up, glad that Dennison hadn’t said
. Then again,
was pretty close. But a lot better than trusting an invisible man in the sky. “Jeannine!” he bellowed.
He heard the click-click-click of her heels, then his door opened. “Yes, Sheriff?”
“Where do we keep the walkie-talkies?”
Her face scrunched up and she asked, “What’s a walkie-talkie?”
Hauser felt the acidic surge of heartburn flare up in his stomach. He faced the nearly blank page of the press release, realizing that he was going to be doing a lot of these in the next few days. “Get me some Tums or Rolaids or some such shit and I want to see Spencer and Scopes in my office in five minutes. Get everyone in here in an hour for an emergency meeting. Pull in everyone. And call everybody you know and tell them to get inland in a hurry.”