We found Baxter hiding in an old farmhouse, fifty miles west of Omaha. He’d been missing more than three years, and I could see how. The house was an excellent hideout. Creepy, and in the middle of goddamn nowhere, but good. Still, even the dumbest motherfucker on the street knows that when you run, you keep running. Don’t ever stop.
Omaha is a long way from Minneapolis, but Frank Tresich knows someone in every crumple of the map deep enough for an airport, especially ones with direct flights. After we got the call, we were on the next plane, and from there, it was simply following a trail. Credit card receipts under the name Theiss instead of Templeton, a few broken wrists, and some tears. We followed each step, and in a few days we found the house and reported in. Didn’t even take a week.
“Think it’s weird?” Reggie asked.
“What? That he stopped like that?” We were carrying Baxter’s body back to the house. The first shot had only winged him, and he’d torn ass outside and into the field behind. There was no one around for miles in any direction, but halfway into the yard he'd stopped and screamed at the sky. I’d finished him with two behind the ear while he stood there screaming. Never seen anything like it.
“No. Wasn’t just that. You didn’t see? There was a shotgun right there in the living room. Why didn't he go for it?”
“Who the fuck cares?”
Reggie stopped moving. Let Baxter’s body hang lopsided in the snow. “Just saying it’s weird is all, Gary. No reason to be a dick about it.”
I apologized. Reggie was just a kid, but he was still Mr. Tresich’s son and it was on me to train him up. Creeped out or not, I sure as hell don’t want to be a dick to a guy who may one day be my boss. I blamed it on the cold and the snow that was starting to come down around us. “Fear makes people do dumb things,” I said. “You’ve seen that. Or maybe he just knew it was up. Was tired of it all.”
“Then why’d he run?” He bent, picked his half of Baxter up, and we drug him the rest of the way to the house in silence, mostly because I couldn’t answer Reggie’s question. Legacy placement or not, the kid was smart. It was weird. I’d been working for Mr. Tresich almost twen-ty years, and when you find someone who is trying to stay hidden, one of two things happens: either they know their day has finally come and they make it easy, or they turn into animals, us-ing anything they can to keep their distance. People fight to stay alive, even after their guts are spilling out into their hands. Baxter didn’t curl up and die, but he didn’t go for the shotgun either.
Inside the house, I told Reggie to wrap the body and take care of the teeth in the kitchen, then went back to the living room to check the shotgun. Maybe it was an antique, or Baxter had never kept it loaded, but I couldn’t figure why a man on the run would bother keeping an un-loaded weapon so accessible.
The living room was mostly clean, only our wet boot prints from when we’d given chase smudged the floor. There was a couch and a love seat and coffee table, and on top of the coffee table sat a mess of maps, topographic and celestial, and a pile of books with titles like, Night Siege and The Hynek Report and Fire in the Sky. None of them were familiar, but the titles made my gut go hard. I ignored them. Told myself I was getting spooked, and spooked comes right before sloppy.
The shotgun hung over the mantle. A Benelli tactical pump, which threw the antique or broken hypothesis out the window before I even touched the damn thing. Even the most brain-damaged asshole can turn into the world’s biggest badass with one of those things, partly be-cause they’re so easy to use, and partly because they don’t goddamn break. Ever.
I checked the breach, my breath tight. Loaded. What the fuck was going on?
Something slammed behind me.
I jumped. My spine twisting as I swung around and leveled the barrel.
“SHIT!” Reggie. Hands above his head. “Shit, Gary! It’s just me!”
“Sorry.” I lowered the shotty. Placed it in the corner, my hands shaking. I tried to apolo-gize to Reggie again, but the words caught. The feeling of it was like snakes in my throat. “It’s just. This doesn’t make any sense.”
“OK. How many jobs have we done together since your dad stuck you with me?”
Reggie thought. “This is six.”
“Right. And those were easy jobs, yeah? I mean, the Somali guy, you were nervous. Un-derstandable. Your first time. But they were easy.”
Reggie nodded. “Gary, what are you talking about?”
“What I’m saying is, those jobs didn’t feel like this one, did they?”
“I mean, they were close to home. Maybe that’s it?”
“No. I’ve been to goddamn Texas and Mexico working for your dad. It’s not the distance. It’s here. You said it. Why didn’t Baxter go for the gun? Why did he run and then just stop in the middle of the field? Why did he go into Omaha and get seen at all? He’d been gone for three years.”
“I know,” Reggie said. “It’s weird. But stay cool, man. We’re almost done. We just have to find the DVD. Then we can go.”
I took deep breaths. Focused on the feeling of my boots on the floor and the cold I felt frosting my toes. “Right. You’re right. Sorry kid, this is the first time I’ve ever freaked out on one of these things. Let’s not tell your pops, okay? Keep it between us.”
“It’s cool,” Reggie said. “And I get why you’re freaked. Baxter was a weird dude from what I heard. Had to have been to steal something from my dad.”
“Never met the guy.”
“What’s on the DVD by the way? Did my dad tell you? He wouldn’t tell me. And how do you know it’s here? ”
“It’s here. Your dad told me he would have kept it as close as possible, but I’ve got no idea what’s on it. Usually, if they steal something, it’s boring. Cash. Account numbers, maybe. Some shit like that. If it’s not that, you’re usually better off not knowing.”
Reggie nodded. “I get it. You’ve probably seen some things.”
“Yeah.” I ran my hand through what was left of my hair. Thought about next steps. “Now that Baxter is wrapped up, why don’t you go start on the hole,” I said. “I’ll come out as soon as I’ve got the DVD.”
Baxter’s bedroom was the same as the rest of the house - clean, well organized, but with the oc-casional burst of life that springs up underneath even the most meticulous people. In this case, it was a stack of books on the nightstand. On the cover of the top one I saw one word: Tunguska.
I pulled my eyes away. Didn’t want to read the rest. Figured I could guess.
After checking all the normal places, underneath the bed, underneath the mattress, under the base of the nightstand, I moved to the closet. Coats and work shirts hung inside, jeans with frayed bottoms and muddy boots lined the floor. In pictures I’d seen, Baxter had always worn an expensive suit and I wondered if he found the plaid and denim lifestyle soothing. If he’d become comfortable in it, and in his comfort, he’d come to believe he was safe. There was an elegance to the thought, but it didn’t hold together. The maps were for something. Baxter hadn't been comfortable. He’d been terrified. And not of me and Reggie showing up at his door. Something else.
I threw the shirts and jackets aside and crouched down to the floor of the closet, knocking along the wood paneling with my knuckles. Tap tap tap, until I heard something deeper, then felt along the edges of the wall. “Not bad,” I said out loud, feeling the edges of the false door. I checked my watch. 10:42.
We hadn’t even been on the farm for an hour.
Inside the false door was a stack of three journals, two more books, impossible to miss, titled Communion and The Eighth Tower, a pile of dark, underexposed photographs, and finally, the DVD. I gathered everything except the books and stepped out of the closet, then placed the items from the hiding spot on the bed.
Leaning over the bed, I began to go through the photos. Grainy shots of yellow and red orbs. I threw the photos down, then opened the journals and paged through. The writing inside was slanted and shaky, but I didn’t stop to read. Embedded in the writing were strange diagrams, and I was suddenly very, very goddamn sure I did not want to know what was written inside. My gut growing hard again, I gathered up the journals, photographs, and DVD, then placed them in my jacket pocket.
I went back to the living room. Stood over the maps on the coffee table. Everything Mr. Tresich had told me about Baxter had suggested the man was as much of a rotten sonofabitch as the rest of us, but that he’d been coolly logical in his viciousness. I tried to imagine a man like that studying star maps and snapping pictures of lights in the sky, but it didn’t square. This had to have been a new obsession. Something that started after he’d been running.
Light flared, blinding me. A sheet of it filling every corner of the room, white and blue and overpowering, it poured in every window of the house.
I stumbled backwards. A current singed the air and a humming thrummed deep in my ear. I tried to call out for Reggie but my throat had gone dry and thick. Cops, I thought. Fucking cops. Then: Jesus Christ, are they using those new sound weapons?
The shotgun was still leaning against the wall, and I crawled towards it, pulled it from the wall, then racked in a load. The barrel pointed towards the door, I began to scoot towards the window. I wondered if they’d already grabbed Reggie. Wondered if there was a helicopter over-head. Wondered if this was it - if I was going to die inside a farmhouse in goddamn Nebraska.
The light was a constant, rippling but thick, as though it were a solid living thing. At the window, I peeked my head over the sill, but couldn’t find any crevice to the brightness. It was as though the sun had gone supernova. There was no hint of what was outside. I looked back to-wards the kitchen. It was even coming in the backdoor.
My bones began to shake. The humming in my inner ear spread out across my body. For one horrible second I believed my skin, which had begun to blister, would burst apart.
The light disappeared. Darkness wrapped the house again, like there had never been any-thing but.
I fell back against the floor. Squeezed my eyes shut. Blinked until I could see again. Carefully, I lifted my head over the sill. Outside, the night was still and silent. No cops. No noth-ing.
I looked to my watch, sure the light, whatever the fuck it had been, hadn’t been there for more than 20 seconds or so. 11:27 PM. More than half an hour since I’d stood over the coffee table, looking at the maps. There was no explanation. Just fear. Fear and the certainty that every-thing had gone to shit. I shook myself from it, then ran to the backyard, the shotgun slapping against my legs.
Outside the moon was hidden by clouds and flakes fell thicker and faster than before. Baxter’s body lay alone in the middle of the field. There was no Reggie. No shovel or picks. Just Baxter, a thin layer of snow spread across his face.
I called to Reggie. Ran from the house until the security light over the backdoor was little more than a spark in the darkness, tossing my head left to right the entire way, looking for a shape in the snow, screaming the whole time. Nothing. I doubled back, searched the front of the house. Our car was still there. The steel burning hot when I placed my hand to it. I searched the house again. Empty. Then back to the field with Baxter’s body and the hole Reggie had been digging. I looked until my hands shook from cold and my teeth rattled inside my skull. Looked until my I could no longer feel my toes and I realized I’d dropped the shotgun somewhere along the way.
Reggie was gone.
I went back to Baxter. Swiped the snow away and studied him. The wrap around his body had come undone and there were burns on his face and forehead. Heat blisters around his eyes. “This is insane,” I said out loud. I kicked Baxter square in the jaw, suddenly realizing how well and truly fucked I was.
I was a dead man. As far as Mr. Tresich was concerned, there was no explaining this. He wouldn’t believe me, even if I drove him out to this field and showed him. He believed in things he could touch. In doing the goddamn job, without excuses.
What he didn’t believe in was you coming home without his son.
Baxter stared up at me, like there was something above me in the sky only he could see. I kicked him again.
There’d be guys coming soon, guys like me. Maybe not for a few more days, but soon enough. I’d be Tresich’s special project, and he’d make it clear to whoever he sent looking: Don’t make it quick. Wait until I get there.
I kicked Baxter, that sonofabitch, until the snow stopped and the clouds moved on and my skin began to tingle. I left him there. Fuck burying him. Let him see the goddamn stars.
The trip was only fifty miles but with the interstates covered in several inches of snow it took me over two hours. I made it back into the city at dawn, the sun rising in front of me.
I booked a hotel in West Omaha. Paid cash. Inside, I smashed my cell phone to pieces, then dropped the shards in the toilet and flushed them away. I read through each of Baxter’s journals. There was nothing inside them but madness. Horrifying descriptions of other worlds, experiments, and beings that lived outside of something called “The Euler Constant”, all scrawled in his slanted handwriting. I burned the journals in the wastebasket. The photos too.
That left the DVD. I considered smashing it. Fuck whatever was on it. Omaha was the center of the country. A few hours’ sleep and I could be on the road to anywhere before Tresich even had a hint we weren’t coming back. Everyone knows they should leave as soon as possible. I’d told Reggie that once. None of them ever do.
I put the DVD in the player and turned on the TV.
Darkness. I edged up the sound. The hotel room filled with the lapping of lake water and the murmur of summer bugs. Then, a voice. “The hell was that?”
“Get the fuck down and stay quiet.” Mr. Tresich. Unmistakable. I knew his voice better than my own father’s. The lake made sense then. The one up near the border he liked. I’d been along on some of those trips, though not for years. I could picture the dock. The cabin we stayed at. Had I been along when this had been recorded?
“Is it coming back?” Baxter asked.
“No,” Tresich said. “I don’t think so.”
The screen went white. The same white I’d seen in the farmhouse. It outlined the edges of their fishing boat and the waves of the water. A high pitched whining tore across the men, knocking them back. Then, a shape came into frame. Gray and flat and enormous, hovering above them. The screen shook. Took on shades of green. Both Baxter and Tresich began scream-ing.
The recording cut off. I realized I’d been holding my breath.
I ejected the DVD, placed in its sleeve, and left the room. Whatever I’d just seen, Tresich had been willing to kill for it, though I had no idea why. There wasn’t anything substantial on the video. Just the suggestion of something. Something most people would go out of their way to dismiss. Was he afraid of being blackmailed? Or did he want it back for something else? To sell it to the media or turn it over to the Government?
On the other edge of town I paid cash for an ’04 Chevy, no paperwork, no questions, then turned back west.
It was late afternoon when I made it back to Baxter’s. I went to the field behind the farmhouse, the sun growing faint in the sky. Baxter’s body was gone, but Reggie’s now lay there. I ran to him, the terror and confusion of the night before suddenly back in my blood.
It was the same story as the night before. Burns. Blisters. Small incisions in the neck. A trickle of blood down his frozen face. I leaned over him. I didn’t cry. We weren’t that close, but I told him I was sorry for what happened and for what I was about to do.
I opened Reggie’s jacket, then tucked the DVD inside. Zipped up his coat. I hated leaving him out here to rot in Baxter’s field, but as far as I could see, this was my only shot. If Tresich had the DVD back, maybe he wouldn’t look too hard. Maybe he’d think I’d been taken with Baxter.
Probably not, but it was a chance.
I knew I had to leave, that I could never stop running, but I stood in that field, the cold creeping into my toes and the wind biting at my neck, until full dark came and the stars shone brilliant and silent above me. My head turned up, I watched for movement, for lights up there in the darkness, until snow began to fall.