BRENT squinted against the late afternoon sun and wondered again why his mother had insisted he come home this weekend. When he pulled his aging Chevy pickup off Highway 52 and headed west, his knapsack slid across the seat and thudded to the floorboards. He glanced down to make sure none of his homework had fallen out before he returned his attention to driving.
This was supposed to be the “Great River Road,” but instead of a vista of the Mississippi, endless rows of corn stretched to infinity in all directions. In less than a mile, though, the tedious farmland gave way to limestone bluffs. Brent gripped the steering wheel as the road climbed up the rocky hillside in steep curves, coiling like a rattler with a broken back. Thick underbrush and low-hanging trees scraped against the sides of his truck as he twisted along the narrow gravel lane. He slowed further, while his stomach growled. He was in no hurry. In just a couple more turns he’d be at the top, where he could stop at Ruby’s Filling Station, Bar, and Museum and get a snack.
As he headed toward the final bend, a black SUV careened around the corner in front of him and fishtailed in his direction. A yellow cloud of dust billowed behind the vehicle as it fought for traction on the loose gravel of the switchback.
A frigid chasm opened in Brent’s gut while he hit the brakes. “Damn.” He gripped the steering wheel and swung to the right. Little needles of adrenalin prickled out at his fingers. At the last minute, the SUV straightened and blasted past, horn blaring. A spray of rocks rattled against his truck. He coughed and blinked gritty dust from his eyes. The horn still sounded, Doppler-shifting to lower pitches and then fading to silence.
“What a friggin’ idiot.” He heaved a deep breath and edged forward. Ruby’s awaited.
A sheet metal shack hunkered on the crown of the bluff, surrounded by a rutted parking lot. Two ancient, rusty gas pumps stood in front, and a neon sign announced “Ruby’s” over the door. Brent’s pickup creaked to a stop next to a battered van with a side panel that read “Middleton Shopper.”
He clambered out, stretched, and combed dust from his short-cropped hair with his fingers. On the other side of a limestone fence, the bluff dropped back down to the valley. He never tired of the view from this height. Below him, the river was a silvery sword that cut through the verdant land. A barge crawled along its surface like a caterpillar inching toward sanctuary. He shook out his arms, still weak from the adrenalin shock of his near-accident, and inhaled the sweet scent of sumac and oak. An undercurrent of worry about his mother’s cryptic e-mail to come home still gnawed, but the peaceful view reassured him. Nothing ever happened here. Maybe Dad had won a few dollars in the lottery. He’d know soon enough.
He twitched when a mild tenor voice interrupted his reverie. “That’s quite a view. I never expected to see anything like that when I moved to Iowa.” The man’s precise diction made him sound like a TV news anchor.
Brent turned to face the speaker. “It’s beautiful, all right.” The newcomer was at least six feet, nearly as tall as Brent, but he was skinny as a floor lamp. The gentle breeze toyed with his shaggy chestnut-colored hair, and he looked like he hadn’t shaved in a week. His spindly arms stuck out from a T-shirt that flapped in the breeze against his narrow chest. Brent couldn’t help himself and flexed his pectorals.
The other guy’s gaze raked over him, and a sardonic grin played across his features. “My name’s Jason.” He stuck out his hand.
His solid grip was a pleasant surprise. “Brent here. Nice to meet you.” At least he didn’t shake hands like a pansy. “You’re not from around here.”
“Nah. I’m from New Jersey originally. I moved out here to go to Collier’s journalism school four years ago.”
Brent nodded. That still didn’t explain what this outsider was doing here. “Collier, huh? That’s way over in Middleton, about fifty miles west of here.”
“Right. I’m a reporter for a paper there. I’m working a story.” He looked down and shuffled his sneakers against the dusty surface of the parking lot.
“Huh.” An outsider and a reporter. A little swirl of self-reproach made him stop. God, I sound just like my parents. Brent tossed a grin at the fellow. “I’m a student at Collier too. Pre-med.”
“Yeah? That’s supposed to be tough—a world-class program. Say, do they still run that children’s hospital out at the Grange Station?”
“I believe that’s closed now. I think maybe the Stillwell-Holmes Institute has some labs out there, though.” He paused, and then added with some pride, “I lucked into a work-study job at the Institute. I’m learning a lot.”
Jason’s head snapped up at his words. “You work there?” He pulled an iPhone from his hip pocket. “Maybe you can help me with my story? It’s all about the Institute, and the Gerion Group that’s behind it. I’d like to interview you.”
Brent frowned. “I’m not sure Dr. Athair would like that. They’re pretty strict about security.”
Jason’s head wagged back and forth, and he snatched a stray curl from his eyes. “I don’t want to know anything current, except maybe some general background. You know Dr. Athair? How about Dr. Holmes? What’re they like?”
“Sorry, I’m really not comfortable talking about them.”
“So you’re saying they won’t let you talk to the press?” He held his phone closer. “Just speak up. It’ll record your answer.”
“What I said was that I wasn’t comfortable talking about my job.” Brent let an edge creep into his voice. “Please get that thing out of my face.”
“So your answer is ‘no comment’.” Jason shrugged and pocketed his phone. “Whatever. I’m really more interested in things from twenty years ago. I’m here to track down a local who used to work there back then. Mary Hyde. You know her?”
Brent laughed on hearing his mother’s name. “She doesn’t know anything about what goes on at the Institute. Trust me.”
“Maybe not now, but she used to work there. I want to ask her some questions about Grange Station.”
Brent snorted. “You must have her confused with someone else. She doesn’t know about the Institute or research in epigenetics. The only biology she knows is which side of a cow to milk. She’s never worked any place but the family farm.”
“That’s not what my sources say. In any case, I’d still like to talk to her. Can you maybe tell me where she lives? All I know is it’s someplace on ‘FM 15H’.” He pointed. “That’s this road, right?”
“You bet. But Mary Hyde won’t have anything to tell you, and I know she won’t want to speak with you. She doesn’t like talking to strangers.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“She’s my mother.” He thought about adding “you twit,” but decided to be polite. “Tell you what. Give me your phone number. I’ll tell her we spoke, and she’ll call if she’s willing to see you.” Like that’s going to happen.
“That’s all I ask.” He stuck bony fingers into his blue jeans and pulled out a tattered business card. “My cell number’s on here. I’m staying up in Bellevue tonight, so feel free to call me.”
Brent glanced at the card and suppressed a snort at the name of the newspaper, a weekly tabloid stuffed with want ads. “You’re a reporter for the Middleton Shopper?”
Jason’s face turned red. “There’s nothing wrong with that. A job’s a job.”
Brent blinked, and a twinge of guilt nibbled at him. “Can’t argue with that, especially these days.” He glanced at the sun. “Hey, I gotta run.”
“Sure. Don’t forget to call.” Jason tossed his head to clear that unruly lock of hair from his forehead. “I’d still like to talk to you about the Institute. I’m really interested in the Grange.”
“I don’t know anything about that. I work on campus, and Grange Station is way out in the country.”
Jason nodded. “I heard that there’s proprietary research going on there, maybe even military work.”
Brent squelched his irritation at the guy’s persistence; he was just doing his job, after all. “Like I said, I wouldn’t know. I work on campus, in Dr. Athair’s lab.” He looked the reporter up and down. He was kind of cute. Maybe I should cut him some slack. “I do have to go. Tell you what. Call me next week, back on campus. I’m in the online student directory. I just can’t give you anything specific, okay?”
Jason looked like a puppy having its tummy tickled. “More than okay.” He stuck out his hand. “Thanks again. And tell your mother I don’t bite. I just want to chat with her.”
“Will do.” Brent shook hands, turned, and entered Ruby’s without looking back.
Inside, the acrid scent of onion rings, cigarette smoke, and motor oil twanged in his nostrils. “Hey, Ruby. How’s tricks?”
Her wrinkled face erupted in a leathery grin. “Brent, you little scamp. I saw you a-flirtin’ with that fella out there. He gonna be your new squeeze?” Her voice rasped from decades of cigarettes, and her iron-gray hair frizzed about her head like a Brillo pad, but her blue eyes sparkled with affection.
Brent laughed. “Good to see you too, Ruby. And no, I’m done with boyfriends after what happened with the last one.”
Her mouth turned down. “I remember. I met that Gary last time you passed through.”
He shook his head. “You did, but he’s not my boyfriend. He’s just a buddy. You never met Matt. Gary helped me put things back together after we broke up. Anyway, I’m too busy with school for dating.”
She glanced outside at where Jason’s van was still parked. “Too bad. The reporter guy was kinda cute.” She frowned. “Snoopy, though. And he talked like he was from New York City.” Her tone suggested that was the furthest depths of hell. She spat in a can next to the cash register. “What can I get for ya, honey?”
“How about some chips and a coke? Something to hold me over until dinner.”
“Don’t you spoil your meal, now. I bet your Momma’s been cookin’ all day.”
“I’m sure she has. You doin’ okay, Ruby?”
“Sure, sure. Thing’s is kinda slow these days, but I’m kinda slow myself.” She rang up his purchase. “Send my greetin’s to your folks, y’hear?”
“I’ll do that. Good to see you.”
The Middleton Shopper van had left by the time he returned to the parking lot. He fingered Jason’s card in his shirt pocket, slipped back into his pickup, and opened his coke and chips.
The road wound through steep hills and occasional rock-strewn fields. In most places, the slopes were too steep for a tractor, and the ancient scrub forest had returned. Oak and maple trees swayed in the evening breezes, but the ground hid beneath a bramble of briars and impassable underbrush.
Fifteen minutes after leaving Ruby’s, he arrived at the Hyde’s little farmstead, nestled between two hills. The red barn needed paint, and the front porch sagged against a white frame house. A tiny pasture held three cows that chewed on cuds and stared with placid brown eyes as Brent got out of his pickup. He inhaled the familiar barnyard scents of oats and manure and grinned. His father’s old Ford pickup was in the circle drive by the well, and his mother’s rusty Buick stood in the driveway. A scrawny tomcat stretched in the sunlight and stared at him, as if wondering what he’d taste like.
It was good to be home.
He bounded up the front steps, avoiding the broken second tread. The front door was ajar, and a momentary frown creased his forehead. They never locked the front door, but they never left it unlatched either. “Mom! Dad! I’m home.” He pushed inside.
The scents of dinner wafted from the kitchen. Sure enough, an apple pie, still warm, sat on the counter by the stove, and a pork roast was in the oven. The table was set for three. The TV was on too, playing an episode of Green Acres. Brent cringed and shut it off.
“Hey. Where is everybody?”
Still no answer.
He roamed the little house: living room, dining room, his bedroom, his parents’ bedroom. All neat and ordered, and all empty. He pursed his lips. Maybe they were outside.
Three cows lined up next to the barn and stared at him. “You need to be milked, girls?” Maybe that was it. For sure, Dad would take care of the animals before anything else. But the barn was empty too. It was clean, washed down from the morning chores and the milk tank was ready for tomorrow morning’s pickup by the local dairy. The feed troughs were loaded and ready, but no one was there except the animals. One of them nuzzled the gate into the barn and gave a sorrowful low.
Brent frowned and headed back to the empty house. Both cars were here. Dinner was in the oven and the table was set. But his parents were missing.
Worry chewed at him. This wasn’t like his stolid parents at all. He pulled out his phone and called his dad’s cell. Ringing shrilled from the kitchen. He followed the sound and found his father’s phone in a jacket hanging by the back door. Brent’s phone announced in his father’s gruff voice, “You’ve reached Chuck Hyde’s cell phone. I can’t take your call right now. Please leave a message.” It beeped, and he hung up.
What was going on? Where were they?
He flipped open the phone book and looked up old man Zimmerman’s number. The old coot lived alone in the only nearby farmstead, just around the bend, and never went anywhere. Maybe he’d seen something. When his phone rang with no answer, Brent frowned and hung up. His fingers tapped on the phone book, and then he looked up the sheriff’s emergency line. Panic bubbled in his throat as he punched the number into his phone.