Summerfield grew up traveling from one odd place to another while his parents searched for enlightenment.
And yes, he does work for the nation's leading paranormal publication, Wolton World News -- or Woo Woo News as the scoffing locals call it.
That doesn't mean he's prepared for all kinds of weirdness in the last place he expected to find it . . . Omaha, Nebraska.
An unexpected storm and the search for a large mutant cat are only two of the unusual things happening as a Wolton World News reporter finds himself involved in something a bit odd even for him!
Read chapter 1 below!
Lightning blinded me, the flash so bright that for one heart-pounding second I thought an atomic bomb had gone off over the city. I hit the brakes at the same time thunder shook the world and wind swept through the area in a frantic gust, driving dirt and debris across sidewalks and the street. I still feared the end of the world until rain began to fall in a sudden deluge.
Just a storm after all.
Although just didn't approach the description for the sudden fury unleashed around me. Rain obscured the view as though a semi-sheer curtain dropped between me and the rest of the world. A moment later hail the size of marbles fell in a pinging frenzy as they dented the car and shredded leaves from nearby trees.
Despite the weather, a wave of relief rushed through me at how lucky I had gotten this morning. If I hadn't played the good son and gone out to help with some paperwork at my parents' house, I would have been walking to work in this mess.
I contemplated my luck while hail approaching the size of golf balls hit the corner of my hood. I stomped on the gas and darted for the underpass beneath the railroad crossing about two blocks away. Various sizes of hail pounded against the windshield as the car slid on the slick street. I saw a half dozen other cars far ahead, but no one nearby as I came to an ungraceful stop beneath the concrete bridge. Torrential rain and large hail pounded the world outside my little shelter, changing my view of 13th Street into a veil of running colors, swirled by a vicious, erratic wind which changed direction with each gust.
Dangerous storm. Lightning hit a tree about three blocks away, shattering pieces of a limb. The roar of sound afterwards made the car tremble and I blinked as bright patterns played across my eyes. For a moment I thought I saw odd shapes racing across the intersection a block away. I blinked: They disappeared. Good. I had enough weird in my life.
With nothing better to do, I turned on the radio. Lighting cascaded across the cloudy sky and trailed static on the stations but I fiddled with the settings until I could hear voices.
". . . unexpected! An unusual cold inversion along the Missouri River came out of nowhere, and hit the warm front and . . . chaos!" The woman sounded breathless and static covered a few words before I could hear again. "We're getting some of the wildest readings on Doppler I've ever seen!"
Static rose over her words. I tried another setting.
". . . Lake Manawa," a man shouted, loud even over the storm and the interference. "Damnedest thing I ever saw! The sky lighted like a bomb went off!"
"There was no bomb," the DJ replied, cutting him off. Wise to quash that rumor right away. At least I hadn't been the only one who had experienced the gut-wrenching moment of fear. "This is nothing more than a very unusual storm. We have another call . . ."
". . . Angels calling out to hold tight, to hold back. This is the apocalypse . . ."
My. The storm had unsettled quite a few people. I fiddled with the radio, watching hail build up on the ground and looking like a fall of hard snow. The winds began to lessen, though the rain continued to fall as though someone had opened a spigot. A huge limb swept past in the growing rush of water and a pond began to grow in the depression beneath the bridge. I'd have to leave soon or risk water in the engine.
". . . Flying through the sky . . ."
When another limb wedged itself into my little sanctuary, I eased the car forward, despite the hail. The tires slipped on the slick road and leaving even the slight depression proved difficult.
"... Adams Park," a woman said over the static. "And it's raining huge rocks!"
I glanced towards grey clouds glimpsed between the snap of my windshield wipers and fervently discounted the idea of falling rocks. The hail proved bad enough, pinging off the roof and hood with loud thumps. I fought the wheel of the car and pushed on the gas, fearing the storm would sweep me away with the rest of the debris.
And my cell phone went off; Age of Aquarius rang out, startling me into a breathless curse. The tune repeated twice. My boss was calling, of course. She has an incredible knack for calling at the wrong time. I pulled over to the curb and yanked on the emergency break. My hands trembled as I took out the phone.
"Julia." I tried to sound calm while hail fell harder and a circle of cracks appeared in the middle of my windshield.
"Summerfield." She sounded distracted and I could hear the police band radio in her office squawking in the background. Things sounded pretty lively. I switched off my radio but could barely hear her. "Where are you?"
"Not far from the office."
"No. I drove out my parents' house today."
"Bless the Lady. I worried," she replied with such sincerity I remembered one of the reasons I enjoy working for her.
She must have leaned closer to the police band radio; feedback made me yank the cell phone away from my ear with a near curse. I thought I had heard someone yelling about Valkyries this time. Damned odd weather when you can get the Angels of God and Norse Valkyries in the same storm.
"You there?" she asked.
I dared to put the phone to my ear. "Yes. I'm waiting out the storm."
"What's that odd pinging noise?"
"Hail hitting the car." I could count the insurance money with each of those dings in the hood and the new chip in the windshield glass.
"We have hail here, too," she replied.
"About six blocks away. What are the odds?"
"I don't know. I'll have to find someone who can tell me." Sometimes irony is lost on this woman though she made me smile. "I'm glad you have your car, Summerfield. Tessa gave me a reading last night and said today would be important. Hold on. I have to check something."
Tessa, the astrologer, ran a little shop about two blocks from the office of Wolton World News, where I worked. The paper covers stories on the unusual side. Julia frequented Tessa's place for readings and Tessa had been right predicting this one with the angels and Valkyries and falling rocks.
Julia Wolton, owner and publisher of Wolton World News, had a knack for smelling out good stories for the paper, even here in Omaha which is not exactly the arcane capital of the world. People reported from several places around the world and she had hired two local reporters to cover stories she unearthed and to rewrite material from elsewhere.
I enjoyed my job, though I wasn't certain you could call my coworker, Jacobs, a reporter. He got far too many of his stories from the bottom of a beer bottle and I spent too much time fixing the man's prose to consider him a writer of any sort. He fabricated more than he investigated and we had to double check everything. He did answer phones, though, and sometimes we needed him in the office to catch things while Julia and I did the real work.
Someday there would be an accounting for his actions. Karma. I'd seen the power at work too often in the past to doubt the ongoing tally of good and bad. Jacobs' attitude and ethics inched him ever closer to a big fall. I'd try not to snicker.
The storm eased. Water, mud, bits of trees and other debris raced along the edge of the street. Stalled cars sat in the street ahead and a few people took cautious steps outside. A blue jay landed on the hood of my car, glanced around as though startled by the destruction, and took off with a raucous shout of protest.
"I've got something for you, Summerfield," Julia said, startling me. "Something came in about two minutes ago -- a report from out near Ralston, along the Big Papio Trail. Several people have spotted a huge, strange cat."
I held the phone out and stared. Angels of God, Norse Valkyries, falling rocks, storms like atom bombs going off . . . and she wanted me to go check into a lost cat story?
"The police have sent a couple squad cars already," she added, which at least made this sound a little more interesting. "They have several witnesses in the area."
"Something loose from the zoo?"
"The zoo says no. Maybe someone raising a big cat got careless. The people out there are saying this is a strange cat, though. Can you go check? Or I can wait for Jacobs to come in and send him instead."
I sometimes think she plays the Jacobs card on purpose because she knows I don't trust him to report honestly on anything. I snarled something rude under my breath.
"Yes, fine. Where am I going?"
"The police are at the Big Papio Trail along Towl Park. Stay off the main roads. I'm hearing reports of stalled cars and accidents throughout the city. And don't go anywhere near the Interstate or Bypass. It'll be hours before they clear that mess out!"
Good warnings. I inched the car towards a driveway where to turn around. I would have been closer if I'd stayed at my parents' place for a while longer.
"I'll see what I can find, Julia."
"Good luck. Goddess go with you."
I dropped the phone on the seat beside me and began the laborious work of going back the way I had come. I couldn't get through on 13th because stalled cars and downed power lines. I cut through side streets, helped clear two branches and found damaged trees all the way to the Henry Doorly Zoo. The Desert Dome stood to be intact. I hoped the botanical gardens hadn't been hit too badly.
I found less damage once I got south of the zoo. I didn't think I would have too much trouble getting to Ralston.
Where I would go looking for a big lost kitty.
The clouds moved in odd ways, and sometimes the wind gusts came so hard I had to fight the steering wheel to keep from careening off the road. Once I thought I heard voices somewhere above me; my imagination playing with me after the radio reports.
After more than an hour, I arrived at the area of the missing cat and found two police cars and big crowd. Given the weather, I would have thought they'd have better things to do. Ah, but maybe watching the Big Papio rise in its banks drew many of them out here. I could see it stood almost bank full already. Not a good sign.
I parked well back in the Towl parking lot with a half dozen other cars and dropped my cell phone under the passenger side seat for safekeeping. I hated when the thing went off in the middle of an interview. I also grabbed my press pass from the glove compartment and a camera bag from the backseat before I braved the weather and threw open the door.
I don't know how it could be so hot, humid and raining at the same time. I'm used to summer weather in the Midwest, but I paused, almost gasping this time. As I crossed the lot, the rain lessened to a drizzle, which was no help since I was already drenched. I could see trash rolling into piles near the storm drains and rivulets of rain water rushing through the street. However, the storm hadn't hit this area as hard as some locations I had driven through.
Clouds skittered across the sky in several layers and each chaotic mass heading in a different direction. I'd seen such movement happen with two layers before, but not four or five. I watched in amazement for a moment and then forced myself to head for work.
The cops were starting to herd some of the people away from the trial along the banks. Holding up my press pass won a couple grunts and nods until a tall, lanky cop with gray sideburns, a mustache, and a no-nonsense look stopped me. His plastic raincoat couldn't be comfortable, though at least he stayed dried.
"Summerfield?" he said looking at the press pass. The plastic made an odd crinkling noise as he moved. "I'm Officer Lenz and I'm in charge here. I have rules. Don't go down the bank to get closer to the water. It's moving pretty damned fast and the bank is slick. The cat was last seen heading south, so unless you want to chance meeting the animal by yourself, don't get out of sight."
"Did you see the cat?"
"Nah. But the first cop here did see some tracks before the rain washed them away."
"What am I looking for?"
"Huge golden-brown cat with glowing green eyes." He stared me straight in the face without even a glimmer of a smile.
I headed towards the closest group of people watching the water and asked who had seen the cat. After four tries I found a nervous, anorexic woman of about thirty who must have been out jogging. Her mascara ran in lines from the corner of her eyes and her bleached blond hair hung in limp strands, clearly showing the darker roots. She'd be appalled when she realized how bad she'd looked in public.
"Yes. I saw it not long after the rain started. The cat ran right past me!" She gulped air a couple times. "The zoo -- the zoo will be held accountable for this. They should do better!"
"The zoo hasn't lost any cats. Someone near here might have illegally raised something --"
"No one in this neighborhood would do such a thing!"
I buried an amused grin. "Well, cats can run for quite a ways. Can you describe the animal?"
"Golden and brown, ticked fur," she said and her eyes narrowed. She held up her hands, flashing perfectly manicured fingernails which didn't look any more natural than her hair. "A long tail, too. Not short haired, but not a Persian or angora length, either. Would have made a gorgeous coat."
"Thank you." I pulled out a little notebook I always keep in my pocket and jotted notes, hoping I could keep the paper dry enough to avoid the ink running like her makeup. Glancing upward, I could darker clouds moving in, promising more trouble soon.
The woman dabbed at her eyes, got a horrified look on her face, and hurried away without saying anything more. I moved on to another group of people, but most had arrived after they saw the cops show up.
One person had seen the cat sniffing around at the edge of the trail. He gave the same general description, adding that the face had been a little flat, the eyes huge and glowing and with paws a peculiar long and narrow shape.
Julia would love the part about the glowing eyes if I could get the detail confirmed somehow. I followed the path along the edge of the Big Papio with a wary eye on the weather and the water. The winds kicked up and rain fell in a sudden burst and stopped again a moment later. The crowd thinned out and one cop car took off so I didn't think anything more would come of this.
I considered leaving. I glanced at the clouds and felt as though I stood in the heart of a hurricane, with everything swirling around in different directions. The sight could almost make a person dizzy.
"Damned impressive, ain't it?"
A short, older black man moved along the path towards me. The weather didn't bother him in the least. He squinted through raindrops on his gold-rimmed glasses and brushed water from his short, coarse hair as he watched the sky for a moment before turning back to me.
"I've never seen a storm like this," I admitted.
"Me neither. Lived here all my life and the weather can still surprise a person. Sure hope it doesn't get any colder, though. Don't want snow."
"This is summer," I pointed out.
Okay, the weather had been odd enough. I couldn't tell what might happen next so he had a point.
"My neighbor told me you asked about the cat," he said. "You're a reporter?"
I held out a hand. "Summerfield, from the Wolton World News."
We shook. He had calloused hands and a good grip. "Tim Dorey, from the Retired and Damned Glad of It. Wolton World News -- that's the odd paper, ain't it?"
"Well, this is odd enough," he admitted. "Biggest damned cat I've seen outside of a Siberian Tiger. I worked for the zoo for twenty years and I've never seen or heard of anything to compare to this one. I'm going to call my old boss and tell him about it."
I grabbed my notebook and began to take notes not only on what he'd seen, but also who to contact at the zoo. He gave me an excellent description with the height of about four feet at the shoulders, lean, long legged and with big, odd shaped paws. The face had been somewhat flat like a tiger, with small ears and green eyes. He didn't say glowing, but I saw the way his eyes twitched at that point.
"Has to be some kind of cross-breed," he said, shaking his head. "You can cross a lot of the big cats, you know. Lions with tigers and such. Or something mutated. I don't know. It was just the damnedest thing I'd ever seen, though. The cat saw me, too. I couldn't have outrun it."
"The truth? The cat nodded his head like he was saying howdy-do and walked down to the edge of the creek bed. Well-trained. Maybe something from a circus? You know, sometimes they dye the animals and trim them up to look odd."
"Maybe," I agreed. I could tell he didn't believe such a simple answer. I did not, suddenly, want to think about such an animal loose in Omaha.
"Odd day. Damn strange storms, damn strange cats." Tim Dorey glanced around as though he expected something else strange to turn up. "I hope things don't get worse."
Lightning flickered across the sky, several bolts darting from cloud to cloud. The wind bore down on us and rain began to pound the area in a torrent. We both glanced up and back at each other. Mr. Dorey shrugged.
"I think I'll just head back to my apartment," he said with a casual nod. "Before I provoke the Almighty into some other little show of humor. Get out of the rain before you catch a cold."
"Thanks for the information." I shook his hand once more. He appeared pensive. "You have something else?"
"Yeah. But this will sound odd."
"This is the day for it."
He laughed, brushing rain from his hair. "Okay, this is going to sound more than odd. I saw the cat there by the bank and I swear he searched for something. He'd dig a little bit at the weeds and then move on. Not hunting the way normal cats do, big or small. Cats, when they hunt, get all tight-muscled and slinky. This one acted annoyed and bothered in a . . . well, in a human way."
I glanced towards the Big Papio and measured the height of the water from the top of the banks. "Here?"
"Right there in the grass and weeds where everything is kind of flat. I don't know you should go down there, Summerfield --"
"You better get in out of the rain, Mr. Dorey," I said with a smile.
"You be careful. I don't care what anyone else thinks; I know what I seen and big cats are dangerous." He turned and walked away. He had a good point, and one to remember as I stood there in the rain. I knew I should head to the car, but I found myself staring at the flattened weeds and grass.
I had to know what might be hidden down there.