“At the Haverton Farm?” I flicked my blinker and swerved around a trundling trailer hauling pigs, leaving the lame headline to the small town’s storefronts.
“Here on the Haverton Farm?” Scanning the binders of research I’d tossed onto my passenger’s seat, I found the owner’s name and tried another opening.
“On Jeffery Haverton’s farmstead.”
My latest introductory phrase sat in my stomach like my tabby Bug did in my lap, toasty, purring, and perfect.
Satisfied, I came to what I imagined would be the last intersection before I hit nothing but fields. I halted at the lights and drummed my fingers on my hatchback’s steering wheel.
Dusty trucks trundled by, passing from one beige stretch of crops to the next. I bided my time counting the number of dogs lolling in the backs of pickups and popping through cabin windows. I’d gotten to six when a gleam drew up beside me. Raising my hand, I shaded my eyes from the glistening black caddy in the turn-left lane.
The tinted passenger window buzzed down, revealing a square face, square hairline, and square sunglasses. “You’ve got a flat, Miss.”
I sensed for the deflated tire but my car felt level, the clank and rumble content. “I’ll look into it.”
Square-face’s hard mouth struggled into a curve. “I think you should pull over.”
His sunglasses reflected the stoplight’s switch to green and I floored it. In my rearview, I watched Square-face’s car take the left and with a snarky bark, I eased into my seat.
“I think you should pull over.”
Rolling my eyes, I centered on the two-lane road cutting through stalks of wheat taller than my car. A low-flying duster zoomed overhead and I leaned forward, following its flight between the power lines pointing the way to my most promising story yet.
Their straight course wobbled, or I suppose mine did, when my car’s front left tire popped. I steadied the wheel and slowed while loose rubber flapped and flopped.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Slowing, I rumbled onto the gravel lining the road, the ground giving way to a soft patch of churned earth. I found the tire sagging and no bars on my cell phone. I’d opened my hatch, searching for a jack and a spare, when a trio of beeps sounded along the road.
I lugged out the jack as a plume of dust careened off the pickup pulling up behind me. The driver’s door opened and a thickset man filling out overalls that had to be decades older than he was, stepped out. A Haverton Farm’s hat perched on his head. He tipped the frayed brim back, showing off pleasantly tanned features and eyes that matched the sky.
“Having a problem, Miss?”
Thankful I’d left my phone in my pocket, I donned my helpless face and let the jack weigh down my arms. “A flat tire, I think.”
He slammed his door closed and with a country smile, sauntered over. “I’m sure we can fix that right up.”
I handed him the jack and socket wrench, and tiptoed behind him to the flat. “I don’t want to make you late for work.”
“Oh Mr. Haverton’ll understand.” He squatted by the tire and began unbolting the nuts.
I forced my voice light, my tone curious but inconsequential. “So you work for his farm?”
“I’m his mechanic.” He grunted and spun the first nut free.
“Do you like working there?”
“‘Course I do.”
Clicking record on my phone, I crouched to eye level. “You haven’t noticed anything strange going on in the past few months.”
He stopped in mid-turn and stared at me, his eyes darkened by the shadow of his hat’s brim. “What could be strange on a farm?”
My files, my research, my interviews with toxicologists, animal specialists, and meteorologists, threatened to tumble out of me. Something in his flattened eyes and blank expression, however, made me hold my tongue.
“Nothing.” I stood and fumbled with my phone when he rose as well. “That tire looks pretty bad, I’ll see if I can’t get a tow.”
“You don’t need a tow.” He rolled the jack in his hands, calluses scraping against the iron.
“But I don’t need to keep you.”
He took a step closer. “I think I need to keep you.”
I skittered backwards and willed reception into my phone. While he kept closing, I hit redial, hoping to reach Helen’s desk before I ended up gagged and in the back of a truck. Searching for more time, I launched into my typical interview questions.
“What’s your name anyway?”
His gaze jumped to my phone and back, his head tilting too far to the left. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Miss.”
I cracked into the side mirror of his pickup and clutched my shoulder. “Then maybe we can make a deal, I’m a reporter—”
“Then let me tell your story.”
He yanked open his pickup’s driver-side door. “Ain’t got one I want told.”
“Maybe there’s something you’d like to share.”
“Get inside,” he said, motioning with the jack at the dusty, mud-stained, and debris littered cabin, “and we’ll see what there is to say.”
“I wasn’t born yesterday either, champ.” I spun, my sneakers digging into gravel.
His hand, however, clamped onto my arm before I could sprint down the road.
He squeezed and white blazed in my eyes. A bony crunch melded with a crack from beyond the fields, and my vision flooded back complete with colors and dimension. The pain in my arm provided an additional sheen of clarity and caused me to drop my phone. I cradled my limb instead and stumbled against the rails of his pickup.
He, however, had landed face first. Blood soaked through the back of his overalls and oozed from the bullet hole between his shoulder blades. The damp patch spread, gluing denim to twitching muscle. The wound gaped, growing bigger, wider, larger, and drew me down into the morbid black.
Slumping, I dragged my gaze from the blood, from the corpse, and across the sky, the wheat, the ditch that could still be my grave.
I jolted and discovered Square-face beyond the hood of my car. He held a pistol, his aim at the dead man, his features as hard as they had been in passenger window.
Footsteps rounded the pickup’s bumper and a deeper base asked, “Are you alright?”
Square-face’s friend had the same sunglasses and suit, but the resemblance ended there. Wrinkles of concern softened his dark forehead. When he crouched next to me, he cupped my elbow with gentle hands.
I winced as he started inspecting my numbing forearm. “I’m fine.”
“Broken.” He looked past me to Square-face. “We’ll need an ambulance.”
“I don’t need an ambulance.” I jerked free and nearly blacked out.
An arm held me and started laying me flat. Instructions for dealing with shock and injury flickered through my mind and got my sailor tongue working.
“Sorry, Miss,” said the second suit as he recoiled, “but you need to rest.”
“I need answers.” Blinking my vision clear, I gripped onto the pickup’s rail, and staggered to my feet. A gush of adrenaline pushed away the pain and I seized the opening. “You just killed a guy. Why?”
“He was about to kidnap you.” The second suit stood and peered through his sunglasses at me. “And he’s not dead.”
I did. Blood still oozed. The muscles still twitched. But now, sparks flickered.
“What the hell?” I made to kneel but the second suit held me back. I wheeled on him, my glare matching the heat bubbling off the flat-faced man-creature-something by my feet. “What is going on?”
“We’re trying to find that out.”
“This is about the Haverton Farm isn’t it?”
“This is about more than one farm.”
I braced myself against the pickup, wishing for my phone, a pen, the use of my left arm. “Explain.”
“I’m not authorized to do that yet.”
“Authorized by whom?”
“I get it.” I sought a better question from a land where my head didn’t throb. “Is there someone with authorization who can explain?”
“Perhaps.” Their black caddy pulled up and the second suit opened the back door. “If you’d like to come with us.”
“I didn’t go with him, what makes you think I’ll go with you?”
He peeled off his glasses, bright blue eyes-sky blue-rimmed in an even crisper white than normal, than proper, than human for his dark features, locked onto me.
“Because we have answers. You just have to give us one first.”
I gulped and held fast to my confidentiality agreements. “Depends on the question.”
“We need to know if you’re one of them or not.”
I scoffed and scooped my phone from the ground where it had fallen. “That’s easy. I’m not.”
“We’ll be the judge of that.” He set his glasses back onto his nose. “If you’ll get into the car, Miss, we can get started.”
I peeked inside and found my backpack, a box full of papers from the trunk of my car, the binders of research I’d left on the passenger seat, even my keys waiting on the polished leather. “Those are mine.”
“You can have them back once we’re certain of who and what you are.”
The second suit motioned at the corpse. “So was he.”
I scowled at the man with the strange eyes, then at the body, the not-a-person lying on the ground. Neither seemed on the verge of explaining anything, so when he took my elbow again, I allowed the suit to guide me to his car. He shielded my head from the doorframe and I pulled my legs in afterwards. The door slammed closed, tinting the world outside in shades of grey.
Resting my phone in my lap, I gazed at the screen. Clicking up a text message, I sent one I hoped would reach Helen or someone else on the editorial staff. Meanwhile the second suit took the passenger seat and we surged away from Square-face, my car, the pickup, the corpse. We drove away from the farm, and on toward where I hoped I would get a splint for my arm, maybe an aspirin, but most importantly, some answers, because whether I liked any of them or not, I was certain whatever I uncovered would be the makings of one hell of a story.