She’d hoped for snow, but not like this.
The flakes seemed to have merged into a single sheet, billowing around her, getting into her nose and mouth, robbing her of her balance. The wind subsided for a moment, but she could hear it building again in the distance, bearing down on her like a train and nearly sending her careening across the tundra.
Jenna Kalin blamed her nausea on the vertigo caused by the swirling snow, but knew that she was lying to herself. She’d spent years in the Alaska wilderness and had suffered through far worse storms. There had even been a time when she’d enjoyed the majestic fury of them, a reminder that, despite the growing influence of man, some aspects of nature couldn’t be tamed.
She struggled to pull her boot free from the snow that had drifted around it and shone her headlamp behind her, illuminating a kaleidoscope of white flakes before being swallowed by the surrounding blackness. The rope extending from her waist began to sag, and she watched as the outline of her companion gained detail.
He had been confident to the point of dismissive ten hours ago, certain that his natural strength and fanatical commitment would make him more than a match for both her and the Alaska winter. But now his breath was coming out in ragged jets of steam and he was beginning to stumble with almost every step. Normally, she would have offered a few words of encouragement, but Jonas Metzger wasn’t a man who evoked compassion or sympathy. In the time they’d worked together, the warmest feeling she’d ever had for him was vague discomfort.
Jenna had begged to come alone but they wouldn’t let her. Michael Teague made a great show of concern for her safety but, as usual, that concern had an artificial ring. More likely he was worried she’d chicken out.
Jenna began fighting her way forward again before Jonas could reach her, concentrating on the endless darkness beyond her headlamp and trying to forget him. For some reason, the fact that he was there made her feel dirty. Criminal. Which, she supposed, she was.
It took more than an hour to cover the last mile, the tug of the rope at her waist becoming more frequent as her companion found it increasingly difficult to keep up. It wasn’t until the blackness ahead began to turn gray that she realized she was grateful for the delay. Her nausea worsened when a recognizable shape formed in the distance, a giant tombstone defacing what had once been untouched wilderness. A tumor on what was supposed to have been protected forever.
As she got closer, the oil rig came into focus: the towering web of steel girders hung with lights, the swooping cables, the blackened snow piled up as a windbreak. Her queasiness was soon overshadowed by the anger she felt at the sight of the compound and the sounds of drilling carried on the diesel-scented wind.
She dropped her backpack in the snow and detached a smaller pack from it, slipping it over her shoulders as Jonas came even with her.
"Wait here," she said, turning off her headlamp and then reaching out to do the same to his. It was doubtful that anyone from the rig could see them through the storm, or even that they’d be watching at this hour, but there was no point in taking the risk.
She couldn’t see Jonas’s face, but the thick hood surrounding it moved slowly from side to side.
"I was told to come with you."
The words were nearly unintelligible, garbled by his thick German accent, the wind, and now the ugly grinding of the rig.
"You have come with me," Jenna said, taking a hesitant step toward him and leaning close enough that she didn’t have to shout. "This is my responsibility and I need to move faster than you’ll be able to."
He didn’t agree or disagree, but just stood there, motionless except for the clenching and unclenching of his gloved hands.
It wasn’t the solemn moment Jenna had fantasized about. She should have been standing there alone, remembering the years she’d spent in Alaska sleeping out under the stars, reveling in the almost comforting loneliness and silence. In a world of seven billion people, it was almost surreal to stand with nature instead of being one of the anonymous masses lined up against it.
She thought about Erin Neal—something she still did way too often. What would he say about what she was about to do?
"Wait here!" she repeated, unclipping the rope connecting them and then taking off at a pace she knew he couldn’t match. When she finally glanced back, there was nothing. Just the darkness.
It took a good fifteen minutes to reach the steep snow bank that surrounded the drilling area and another two for her to climb to the top of it. She lay on her stomach, feeling the cold that had been numbing her face and hands leech into her torso and cause her teeth to begin to chatter. The scarf over her mouth was deflecting her breath and fogging her goggles so she pulled it off, giving the frozen air a direct path to her lungs.
The area below had been plowed flat to house not only the rig but also the men and machinery servicing it. The place was littered with tracked vehicles, stacks of equipment and supplies, as well as a few heated trailers that would be full of sleeping roughnecks right now. It was 2:00 a.m. but spotlights still illuminated every corner of the complex, robbing it of shadows in a way that made it look like an overexposed photograph. She remained motionless, moving only her eyes as she searched for signs of the nighttime skeleton crew she knew was there somewhere.
She continued to wait, but felt herself getting colder and colder. From experience, she knew it would be only another five minutes before her ability to move efficiently began to diminish.
"Now is not the time to start soul-searching," she said aloud. She’d made her decision a long time ago and now there was no going back.
Jenna pushed over the crest of the bank, slithering down on her stomach, counting on her white clothing to act as camouflage. The shouts and sound of running feet she’d half expected didn’t materialize, and once she reached the base, she ran crouched toward a pyramid of rusting barrels.
The high berms surrounding the area completely blocked the wind, but it was still audible over the sound of the machinery, screaming through the top of the rig, furious at being blocked by something so trivial and short-lived as humans.
She crept forward, adrenaline drowning out cold, doubt, fear. Less than a minute later, her foot was on the first step of a set of metal stairs. A layer of ice made them difficult to climb, but it muffled the normal clang of boot against steel.
At the top, she found what she was looking for: a series of vats filled with what looked like muddy water but was actually a meticulously engineered fluid that was pumped around the rig’s drill bit to lubricate it and keep the dirt and rock flowing up out of the hole.
Dropping to her knees on the catwalk, she removed her pack and dug two large plastic bags from it. When she stood again, she found herself staring down into the vats, unable to move.
No one would be hurt, she told herself for the thousandth time. The oil companies would whine and complain and eventually get the government to give them yet another subsidy to supplement the billions in profits they racked up every month. And, of course, the American people would engage in a brief display of self-pity before forgetting all about it. In the end, the only effect of her actions would be to ensure that some of the most pristine wilderness left in the world would be safe. Forever.
She looked at the ice-covered pipes and girders, at the well-lit compound, and finally at the expanse beyond. Sometimes things got bad enough that responsible people had to act to try to change things. The hard part was knowing when that moment had come.
She opened the bags and dumped a white powder into the churning fluid, watching it disappear so quickly she could almost pretend that she hadn’t done it. That the contents of those bags had never really existed.
It seemed impossibly anticlimactic. There was no explosion, no grinding of gears and ensuing silence, no sudden darkness as the lights died. She didn’t know whether to feel relieved or cheated as she shoved the empty bags into her pack.
"Hey! Who the fuck are you?"
She spun around, reaching for a slick railing to prevent herself from falling. The rig worker was running at her with speed and grace that bespoke a life lived on frozen catwalks.
She ran for the stairs, half falling, half sliding down them until she slammed into the snow. The footsteps were audible behind her as the roughneck shattered the ice coating the steps and generated a dull ring that seemed impossibly loud.
Tripping over her bulky boots, Jenna pushed herself to her feet and sprinted back the way she’d come. The glare of the lights made her feel as if she were beneath one of the magnifying glasses that had so fascinated her as a child.
The door of a trailer to her right opened and she saw a man wearing only a pair of greasy jeans peer out and then disappear for a moment before reappearing with a pair of boots in hand. He jumped to the ground and began pulling the boots on while yelling back through the open door.
She didn’t look back, already certain that the man following her was gaining. She’d covered so many cold, hard miles that night and her legs just wouldn’t respond. Or maybe it was more than that. Maybe somewhere deep inside, she wanted to be caught.
With an audible grunt, the man dived toward her, slapping the back of her foot and sending her face-first into the hard-packed snow.
Their slide was stopped abruptly by a stack of tires, and by that time, the man had a hand tangled in her pant leg. She flipped on her back and kicked weakly at him, sinking a boot through his thick beard and miraculously connecting with his chin.
She wasn’t strong enough to hurt a man his size, but she did force him to let go and use both hands to ward off the second kick he was expecting. Instead, she pushed herself to her feet and started running again, struggling for traction and gripping a rusty snowcat for balance. The shouts audible from behind probably came from two or three men, but her mind multiplied them into an angry mob, and finally her legs responded. Her balance returned and she could feel the bitter cold of the air against her face as her speed increased.
She was almost to the snow bank when a figure stepped out from behind a pile of scrap and pointed a gun at her. She tried to stop, but her momentum carried her forward, bringing her so close as to make her impossible to miss. At that moment, though, she realized the gun wasn’t aimed at her, but past her.
She threw herself forward, managing to deflect the German’s arm just as he fired. The crack of the pistol was followed by a loud ricochet and not the soft thud she imagined a bullet impacting flesh would make.
When she looked back, the man chasing her was skidding on his back in the snow, trying to reverse himself. A moment later, he was running toward the relative safety of the rig along with the men who had spilled out of the trailers.
"Are you crazy?" she said, shoving Jonas back hard enough to nearly send him sprawling into the metal debris behind him. "You could have killed someone!"
He didn’t answer, instead grabbing her by the back of the neck and dragging her toward the wilderness they’d come from.
"Stupid piece of crap!" Erin Neal shouted, throwing his screwdriver and rolling out from underneath his perpetually jammed solar array. He gave it a hard kick before remembering he was wearing sandals, then limped off across the dusty wasteland that passed for his yard.
He’d spent the last three days using everything short of a cutting torch to get the panel tracking again, but it had been a complete waste of time. So now he was living his life at the evil whims of a glitchy solar panel and a windmill that sat dead in the still air. Building his house ten miles from the nearest paved road—too far to practically connect to the grid—didn’t seem quite so smart now. At the rate his batteries were draining, his freezer would soon be dead and he would lose the elk he’d bagged that fall.
He stepped up onto the wide porch that wrapped around his house, escaping the Arizona sun that was doing nothing for him but deepening the red of his back, and slammed through his front door. It was time either to break down and call a professional or to go buy the diesel back-up generator he’d been resisting for so long.
The water in the sink was lukewarm, but he scooped some on the back of his neck anyway. Not as satisfying as a handful of ice, but since he couldn’t open his goddamn freezer, it was the best he was going to get.
Erin grabbed a dirty drinking glass from the counter and spun, throwing it through the kitchen door and hitting the fireplace that dominated his small living room. It shattered spectacularly, and watching the shards scatter across the floor made him feel a little better. It always did.
The house wasn’t large—an open living area built around the glass-strewn fireplace that supported a spiral staircase leading up to a loft and down to a basement, and a narrow hallway that led to a bathroom and an unused office. He’d built the structure himself out of old tires packed with sand and then covered it with white adobe. The materials not only created elegant curved lines that he probably wouldn’t have thought of on his own but had the added benefit of covering up his mediocre carpentry skills. Despite a few things he wished he’d done differently, and the fact that he was starting to suspect that his solar panel was possessed, he couldn’t really complain about how it had turned out. The orientation was perfect for passive heating and cooling and, with the exception of the last few days, the electrical system he’d designed kept him in the twenty-first century.
Erin splashed some more water on his neck and grabbed a dustpan from beneath the counter. The broken glass would at least force him to pick up a bit. By necessity, he didn’t have many possessions, but somehow they always seemed to scatter themselves across the floor when he wasn’t looking.
The ring of the cell phone startled him—not only because of the self-imposed silence around him but because no one really ever called him. Sometimes he wondered why he even had it.
The sound was slightly muffled, suggesting the phone had worked its way between his sofa cushions again and he dug around until he came up with it.
"Who wants to know?"
"Ah, I see you haven’t changed. It’s Rick Castelli. How you doin’, man?"
Erin flopped down on the couch and propped his feet on a table he’d artistically welded together out of pieces of an old pickup.
"Rick? It’s been a long time. Since that oil spill off the coast of California, right?"
"Yeah, we appreciated all your hard work on that cleanup, Erin. If I hadn’t put you in charge of that thing we’d still be out there scrubbing rocks."
"So you’re still at Exxon?"
"Nah. I hung out my own shingle a while ago. Mostly doing government consulting work now."
"Cushy," Erin said.
"Yeah, it’s not bad…" His voice trailed off.
"So what do you want, Rick? I assume you’re not calling to catch up."
"Not entirely. See, it’s like this. The Saudis are having some production problems and I think it’s something you’d be interested in."
Erin crossed his eyes and watched a bead of sweat slide down his nose. "I can guarantee you that I won’t be."
"I haven’t even told you anything yet."
"You’re fucking thirty-seven years old."
"Are you telling me you’ve got something better to do?"
"Than go to Saudi Arabia? Are you kidding me? Shit’s blowing up over there and I hear they get double points for Americans."
"That’s just media hype."
"Media hype," Erin repeated skeptically. "What, five bombs in the last two weeks? And how many people dead? From what I hear, the royals are working on an exit strategy."
"You know the fucking towel heads," Castelli said. "All we ask them to do is stand there while we pump cold, hard cash down their throats, and they can’t even handle that."
"You’re still full of shit, aren’t you, Rick?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Could it be that while we jump up and down squealing about democracy we’re supporting a bunch of kleptomaniacal monarchs who use all that money to buy Rolls-Royces while their citizens starve?"
"Jesus Christ, I forgot what a self-righteous prick you—"
"So do we have anything else to talk about?" Erin said, cutting him off.
"Come on, man. Quit breaking my balls. I’ve got a guy here who’s supposed to be an expert, but he’s not you, you know? Besides, since when did you become a nervous Nellie?"
"Why don’t you—"
"I’ll send a plane, okay? Hell, I’ll send a jet with a vibrating bed, a hot stewardess, and some hundred-year-old scotch. Then we’ll stick Uncle Sam for the entire bill, plus our fee. It’ll be fun."
"Goddamnit, Erin! Quit being such a jackass. Do it for an old friend."
"I never liked you."
That wasn’t really true. In his own obnoxious way, Rick was an okay guy. But there were so many reasons not to get involved in the oil business again that he’d need a calculator to count them. Those years didn’t even seem real to him anymore. Just another one of the past lives he was collecting.
"My ass," Castelli said and then his voice softened. "Hey, I know I should have called. I was real sorry when I heard about your girlfriend. What was her name?"
Erin felt a familiar tightness in his chest. It was hard to breathe for a few seconds, but only a few seconds. That was an improvement wasn’t it?
"Yeah, that’s it. Jenna Kalin. I hear she was a nice girl. Kind of a tree hugger, though, wasn’t she?"
Erin let out a breath that almost could have passed for a laugh. "I see you’re still the picture of sensitivity."
"Jesus, Erin. That was what, two years ago?"
"A year and a half." Actually, nineteen months, four days, and an odd number of hours depending on how you treated the time zones. "It was just a few days after Christmas…"
"Well, nothing like a free trip to sunny Saudi Arabia to take your mind off it," Castelli interrupted, obviously not looking to dig too deeply into the subject. "And how ‘bout I guarantee you’ll get lucky with that stewardess—"
The phone went silent and Erin looked down at it. Dead battery. He stuffed it back into the cushions and reached for a framed photo propped on the table next to his feet.
It had been taken in better times. The beach he and Jenna were standing on was black from a tanker spill and she was holding an oil-soaked bird in her arms. The lines of her body were obscured by heavy overalls and a grimy, oversized sweater, leaving only her tan face and thick brown hair visible. Why had that always been his favorite photo of them? Was it the way she was looking at that stupid bird? Was it the memory of letting himself put his natural cynicism aside and get caught up in her moral certainty?
He remembered how the oil had caused her to break out and how she’d blamed each zit on a specific energy company, as though there was a massive corporate conspiracy focused on nothing but screwing up her complexion.
God, he wanted a beer. Even a warm one.
But he didn’t drink anymore, and that was because of Jenna, too. She’d been the only person with the guts to correctly point out that he was a psychotic drunk. So now that she was dead, why hadn’t he started again? Sure, booze brought out the worst in him, but sometimes the anger was easier to deal with than everything else.
Erin set the picture aside and sunk a little farther into the sofa, staring at the empty wall across from him. Everything had seemed so clear after he’d gotten his PhD. He was going to be a new kind of environmentalist. Instead of waving signs and trying to convince everyone that the sky was falling, he’d bring sanity to the debate by taking into account that no one was ever going to do anything for the earth unless there was something concrete in it for them. Preferably money.
On the surface, it had been a great idea—a revolution he’d told himself. But there had been too many compromises. The truth was that the environment had become more of an emotional problem than a scientific one. No one wanted to look at his equations or listen to his carefully laid-out arguments. They just wanted to believe.
He’d laughed off the initial attacks, deconstructing his detractor’s arguments and ramming them back down their throats. And he’d been thoroughly entertained by the occasional death threats, putting up a bulletin board shaped like a tombstone to hang them on. Things had become more difficult when his friends started walking away, but it was bearable. When Jenna had turned her back, though, he’d been completely lost.
Predictably, it hadn’t taken long for his confusion and despair to turn to anger, which landed him with a job in the oil industry. He’d show them.
But what had he shown them? That he could become a fabulously wealthy and incredibly lonely thirty-seven-year-old, sitting around a dark house, surrounded by the ghost of a woman who had hated him before she died?
He wondered if that was what made it so hard. If they’d been on better terms when she’d…
"Then you’d probably be even more fucked up than you are now," he said aloud, forcing himself off the couch to sweep up the broken glass.
"Mark Beamon slammed on the brakes too late, causing the subcompact he'd unwisely rented to fishtail along the dirt road before the front wheels dropped into a deep rut. He frowned deeply as the dust caught up with him and billowed through the open windows, wondering if this time he was irretrievably stuck.
The idea of spending government money to replace the rain inundating Washington, D.C., with the blue skies of Tucson had been appealing in theory. A little sun, some Mexican food, maybe a quick round of golf. But this wasn't Tucson. It was a godforsaken desert in the middle of nowhere.
It was impossible not to wonder what would prompt a sane person to live in this cactus-strewn dust bowl. No pools, no manicured fairways. Hell, no shade.
He stuck his head out the window to make sure there were no buzzards circling before gunning the car out of the rut and continuing up the narrow scar that passed for a road.
When his phone rang five minutes later, he'd barely made it another mile. The nine holes he had planned for that afternoon were starting to look shaky.
"It's about time."
"You said 4:00 p.m. It's exactly 4:00 p.m. Arizona time. In fact, the second hand is hitting the twelve. Now."
Beamon couldn't help smiling. Of all the people who worked for him, Terry Hirst was his favorite. Not only was he incredibly competent and annoyingly punctual, but he simply couldn't be intimidated. A rare trait in the skittish, PC world of today's government.
"Fine, you win, Terry. What have you found out?"
"You received the email on his basics, right? Work history, education, and all that?"
"Yeah. Moving along…"
"Okay, first of all, the one thing everyone agrees on is that Erin Neal is a genius in the true sense of the word. He's the guy in the field of bioremediation."
"What the hell's bioremediation?"
"I asked the same thing. It's essentially the business of using bacteria to clean up toxic spills. So basically he breeds bacteria that eat all kinds of stuff. Mostly we're talking about oil, but he's also come up with bacteria that eat radioactive waste and ones that can work in really harsh environments, like in coal processing."
Beamon crested a hill, but still couldn't see any sign of human habitation. Did the guy live in a cave?
"Neal started a bioremediation firm that did work all over the world and made him a lot of money," Hirst continued. "Most of which he plowed back into research or used for environmental causes…"
"Christ," Beamon moaned.
"He's a hippie, isn't he?"
"Not so much," Hirst said. "In fact, I think it would be fair to say that the hard-core environmentalists can't stand him. He wrote a pretty influential book called Energy and Nature. I ordered you a copy."
"Why don't you just give me the Reader's Digest version?"
"Essentially, it's about the future of energy and the environment, taking into account politics and human nature. He takes a dim view of people–that if it costs us absolutely nothing, we might do something to protect the environment, but if it comes down to saving a tree or running our A/C, it's going to be no-contest. So he felt like the eco-movement needed to refocus itself on creating technologies and realistic strategies that would get people excited, regardless of any benefit to the earth. So, for instance, he'd say that building an electric car is pointless unless it's really sexy, four wheel drive, and goes from zero to sixty in under six seconds."
"Let me guess," Beamon said. "He managed to piss off both sides."
"More or less. The environmentalists saw him as a sell-out and the business community wasn't really persuaded to cough up any money. Anyway, about a year after his book came out, he folded his company."
"His company folded?"
"No, he just shut it down. The guy was printing money as near as I can tell."
"You mean he sold it."
"I'm telling you, Mark, he handed his people big severance checks and closed the doors. Then he went to work consulting for the oil companies–Exxon, BP, and Saudi Aramco primarily. Then he dropped off the face of the earth."
"So he just walked away from that, too? I gotta think the Saudis pay pretty well."
"No doubt. But other than his address and bank records, we've got nothing current on him. He doesn't have a job, he doesn't do research, and doesn't write anything that gets published."
"So he's some kind of hermit?" Beamon said.
"You know what a hermit is?"
"A lonely hippie. Anything else?"
"I checked his criminal record–"
"Wait, let me guess. He chained himself to a tree in a logging camp."
"They found marijuana plants growing in his VW bus?"
"Are you going let me finish? He has two arrests for disturbing the peace and one assault. The charges were dropped in all cases. So maybe he's an angry, lonely hippie."
"I wouldn't–" A call beeped in and he checked the number. "Shit, Terry. I've got to take this. I'll talk to you later."
He picked up and hung his arm out the window, tapping a rhythm on the hot steel of the door. "Carrie? You there?"
"Mark, I just got your message–I was at the hospital late. What are you doing in Arizona?"
"Vacationing on your tax dollar. Actually, we have someone we needed to talk to here and it's pretty important, so I had to come myself." He grimaced at his inelegant delivery of the obvious lie.
"Pretty important, huh?"
"As far as you know."
"Are you coming back tonight?"
"Not sure, yet. That's the plan, though."
"You know we're supposed to look at tuxedos."
In fact, he was aware of that. His secretary had not only put it on his calendar, she'd drawn a heart around it in pink highlighter. There was only so much he could take, though. As near as he could tell, wedding planning was a circle of hell Dante considered too terrifying to write about.
"I'm sorry, Carrie. It just couldn't be avoided."
"I'm ordering the baby-blue one with ruffles." He snorted. "Let me save you the trouble. I've still got one in the attic from my prom. Just get the tailor to let it out."
Beamon wasn't sure what he was expecting, but this was pretty close. The white adobe house looked as if it had been inspired by teepees and seashells in roughly equal parts, and there was no yard, just reddish dirt, looming saguaros, and various pieces of what looked like industrial junk. The gigantic solar panel was identifiable, as was the high-tech windmill, but the Honda hybrid parked next to a slightly crooked barn was so covered in unfathomable gadgets that Beamon recognized it only because one of his neighbors drove one. Most dominant, though, was a large above-ground pool surrounded by scaffolding. And standing on top of that scaffolding was a man dressed only in a pair of camouflage shorts holding something that looked like a giant wooden spoon.
Beamon pulled the car up to a boulder and got out, shading his eyes and squinting at the man staring down at him through mirrored goggles. His shaggy hair was even blonder than in his photos, and his bare torso had a tan muscularity that suggested professional landscaper more than scientist.
"Are you Dr. Neal?"
"Who the hell are you?"
"My name's Mark Beamon. I work with Homeland Security."
An irritated smirk crossed Erin's face before he turned and went back to stirring his pool.
"I don't suppose you'd want to come down and talk?"
Erin just kept stirring, forcing Beamon to grab hold of the rickety two-by-four ladder that climbed the side of the scaffold.
By the time he got to the top, he had sweated through his thin golf shirt, but the rate of his breathing had hardly increased at all. As annoying as Carrie's vegetarianism and after-dinner power walks were, he had to admit that a few years ago, walking from his car to the Taco Bell had left him huffing. He was getting so used to feeling good, it was hard to remember his life before her.
Erin pretended to ignore him, continuing to swirl the green sludge that had taken over his pool.
"I'm no expert, but I'll bet a little chlorine would fix that right up."
Erin pulled his goggles up onto his head to appraise Beamon for a moment, obviously unimpressed. "It's an experiment."
"Bacteria, right? That's your business."
"Hobby," he corrected.
"Hobby. So what do these bacteria clean up?"
"Am I under arrest?"
"Then I don't have to answer your questions."
Beamon glanced up at the sky, futilely hoping the sun was about to dip behind a cloud. "You know…" he started, but didn't finish.
"Nothing. Never mind."
"No," Erin said. "What were you going to say?"
"Just that if I was as rich and good-looking as you, I'd be less pissed off."
Erin spun in his direction and jabbed a finger violently in the air with his free hand. "Who the fuck do you think you are? You drive in here and start asking questions and judging me. You don't know the first thing about me. So why don't you just go tap someone's phone or something?"
Beamon nodded slowly but didn't move; instead, he examined the elaborate grid laid over the pool and tried to discern whether the goop varied from one compartment to another.
Erin moved around the scaffold with this spoon, but as the silence between them stretched out, he became visibly uncomfortable. "I'm experimenting with bio-solar. These bacteria generate electricity from the sun and other nutrients. It's sort of a cross between algae and an electric eel."
Beamon crouched and examined the contents of the pool more closely, but it still just looked like sludge to him. "So I'll be able to throw some of this in a puddle outside my house and run my TV on it someday?"
"Nah. I don't think it'll ever work. Interesting, though."
"If you say so. You know, I'm burning up out here. Any chance we could go inside and talk for a few minutes?"
Erin eyed him suspiciously, but finally just shrugged, jumped off the scaffold, and stomped through the dust to his porch. Beamon considered the drop for a moment and then took the ladder.
Inside, the un-air-conditioned house was more seashell than teepee. Messy enough to be just on the border of saying something unflattering about Erin's psyche, with furniture that was half homemade and half mail order. Much more interesting was the artwork. As near as Beamon could tell, it consisted completely of photographs of the same woman. He walked up to one of her standing at the base of a cliff with a climbing harness on. Early thirties, pretty, with one of those smiles that made you sure you'd like her if you met her.
"Who's this?" Beamon asked. According to the information Terry Hirst had provided, Erin had never been married and didn't have a sister.
"You can't search my house without a warrant. I know my rights."
"For Christ's sake, Erin. I'm not searching your goddamn house. I was just hot."
Erin frowned. The suspicion on his face was now marred by a hint of guilt at being the obvious bad guy so far in this relationship.
"Girlfriend," he said finally.
"Does she live around here?"
Beamon kept his expression impassive, but he was imagining drowning Terry in a toilet bowl for missing that. "I'm sorry."
"She was an environmentalist. You know, one of those groups you people have been bugging and spying on because you think they're terrorists."
Here we go, Beamon thought.
"Her boat sunk with all hands a while back. I figure the government was probably behind it."
"You know, they don't give us torpedoes," Beamon said, and immediately regretted it. He'd tried to leverage the fact that his fiancée was a psychiatrist into some kind of improvement in his own bedside manner, but so far he'd accomplished zip.
"What do you want, Mark?"
"Actually, I want you to look at a sample of some sludge."
"What's in it for me?"
"You seem to like sludge."
"How about the warm fuzzy feeling of helping your fellow man?"
"You're getting colder."
Beamon sighed quietly. "Look, we've gotten wind of a problem at a Saudi oil field, and with all the turmoil over there, we're already kind of living on the edge where supply's concerned. Shit, the people I rented my car from said they're charging six bucks a gallon if I don't bring it back full. So we'd like you to take a look and see what you think. Tell us if it's something we need to worry about."
"Wait a minute," Erin said. "Did Rick Castelli put you up to this?" Of course he had, but because of Erin's tone, Beamon decided to remain silent on the subject.
"You government guys are so fucking melodramatic. Everything's a disaster to you unless it really is, and then you just ignore it. Well, I'll tell you what. I'm gonna ignore this."
Beamon looked around the house–at the dirty dishes on the coffee table, the broken glass on the floor, the dead woman staring at him from all sides.
"So you can hang around here?"
"Fuck you. It's a free country. You can't make me go."
Beamon smiled. "Can't I?"
Excerpted from DARKNESS FALLS © Copyright 2011 by Kyle Mills. Reprinted with permission by Vanguard Press. All rights reserved.