Alien Hunter: Underworld: New Excerpt

Alien Hunter: Underworld by Whitley Strieber is the second sci-fi thriller featuring Flynn Carroll, a member of the secret alien communications department of the CIA (available August 5, 2014).

Flynn Carroll works for the most secret police unit on the planet, seeking the most brilliant and lethal criminals who have ever walked free: thieves and murderers from another world.

As part of a top secret CIA alien communications project, Flynn’s unit has been tasked with tracking down rogue agents from the planet Aeon. While Aeon claims to be a free planet desiring open communications with humanity, Aeon criminals have committed a series of brutal and bizarre murders on Earth. Flynn has been forbidden to take lethal action against the alien murderers—but as the bodies begin to pile up, something must be done.

Flynn finds himself cut off from his team, struggling to unearth Aeon secrets while protecting Earthling civilians from the deadly creatures. But as Flynn gets closer to the truth, he finds himself facing not only some of the most dangerous and frightening criminals ever seen on Earth, but also questions about his own existence. In order to crack the case, Flynn must come to grips with the greatest mystery he has yet confronted: who—or what—is he?

CHAPTER ONE

As he did every morning, Flynn Carroll was going through police reports on his iPad, reading them quickly. Then he stopped. He flipped back a page. As he reread, his eyes grew careful.

He didn’t look the part of a careful man. His appearance—ancient chinos and a threadbare tee—was anything but. Duct tape repaired one of his sneakers. His hair was sort of combed; his beard was sort of shaved. But the stone gray eyes now stared with a hunter’s penetrating gaze.

In two respects, the report was right in line with the others that were of interest to Flynn. A man had disappeared—in this case, two days ago. This morning he was discovered murdered in a characteristically brutal and bizarre manner. What was different was that the body had been found very quickly. Usually, corpses were located days or weeks after the murders.

Not only was this a case for him, but it also represented a rare chance. The killers would generally do two or three or more victims over a period of a few days. The first body would rarely be found until at least two or three more killings had been done. There had been no other disappearances or characteristic murders reported anywhere in the area. If this was the first in a new series, it represented both a major change and perhaps a major opportunity.

The change was that this victim wasn’t an anonymous homeless person picked up off the street. This was a citizen with an identity and people and a place in the world. The opportunity was that the killers might still be operating in the area, and Flynn might have a chance to get them.

He unfolded his lean frame and got to his feet, striding off between the rows of consoles and neatly dressed technicians who manned the command center.

As he passed one of the linguists, he asked, “Got any new messages?”

“This week? Two lines.”

He stopped. “And?”

“A complaint, we think. They seem to be saying that you’re too brutal.”

“Me? Me personally?”

He laughed. “All their messages are about you.”

They’d been asking their counterparts on the other side for six months for more information about these killers. All they had been told was that it was a single, rogue band. From the amount of activity Flynn guessed that it consisted of about seven individuals.

Another of the techs sat before a strangely rounded device, beautiful in its darkness, but also somehow threatening, a glassy black orb that seemed to open into infinity.

Flynn went over to him. “Jake? Got a second?”

The man was intent on his work, peering into the blackness. Within this small, very secret working group hidden deep in the basement of CIA headquarters in Virginia, this device was known as “the wire.” It provided communication with their counterpart police force. This other police force was headquartered on a planet our experts had decided was called Aeon, the government of which was eager for open contact with mankind. Supposedly.

The problem was—again, supposedly—that they weren’t entirely in control of their own people. Aeon, our experts had decided, had evolved into a single, gigantic state, but it was free, and so, like any free country, it had its share of criminals.

Flynn’s take: Let’s see this place before we decide what it’s like. Nobody had ever been to Aeon—except, perhaps, the people who had not been killed, but had instead disappeared without a trace … like his wife, Abby.

“Let Aeon know we’ve got another murder.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And if there’s any response, anything at all, get it translated on an extreme-priority basis.”

As far as Flynn knew, only one remaining alien—a creature that looked human—was responsible for the original crimes, the disappearances. These new crimes—all killings—were being done by things that looked, frankly, alien. They weren’t the “grays” of popular imagination, with their huge eyes and secretive ways. Flynn had never encountered one of those creatures. Apparently, they weren’t from Aeon. With such a big universe, so incredibly ancient and complicated, who knew what they really were or where they were from?

The ones he was trying to take off the map were wiry creatures with narrow faces and blank shark eyes. They had four supple fingers and long, straight claws that could also be used as knives or daggers. They were biological but not alive, he didn’t think, in the same way that human beings were. Their rigid determination and ritualistic, unvarying murder techniques suggested to him that they must be robotic.

He did not hate them. His objective was to clean up the alien criminal element on Earth so that the public could safely be informed that contact was unfolding. To the depths of his soul, Flynn wanted open contact.

There was one exception to his dislike of killing them. The first alien criminal known to have arrived on Earth had called himself Louis Charleton Morris. He used a highly sophisticated disguise that gave him human features that were regular and spare. His hair was black, his lips narrow but not cruel. His expression was open, even friendly. If you encountered him in a dark alley, you wouldn’t think you had a problem. You’d also be just as wrong as a person could be, because Louis Charleton Morris could do far worse than kill you. He could take you into the unknown and do to you there whatever he had done to Abby and so many others.

There had been a police officer here from Aeon, until he was killed. He had two legs and two arms, and a face with lips that were somewhat human, but the eyes were those of a fly. Oltisis could not expose himself to our atmosphere, and had worked out of a hermetically sealed office in Chicago.

Disguising oneself as Morris did was, it seemed, so illegal that not even a cop could get a clearance to do it. Since Oltisis’s murder, though, Aeon had apparently changed that policy. No replacements had showed up, however.

Flynn’s theory was that the killers belonged to Morris. They were something he had created and was using to get revenge.

Flynn’s previous life as a detective on the police force of the city of Menard, Texas, had hardly prepared him for this work. Get your wife taken right out of your marriage bed in the middle of the night, though, and you’d change, and change a lot. You would go on a quest to find her, or find out what had happened to her. To serve that quest, you would learn whatever you needed to learn, and do whatever you needed to do. You would push yourself hard. You would not stop.

He walked across the room to a door marked only with a plastic slide-in sign: DIRECTOR. On the other side, there were more desks; more computing equipment; more quiet, intense men and women. Saying nothing, moving with the supple energy of a leopard, he went through into the inner office.

“I’ve got one I want to move on right now.”

Operations Director Diana Glass said, “Okay, what are we looking at?”

“Town in Pennsylvania. Guy disappeared yesterday. He’s been found. First report from the area.”

“They could still be there.”

“That’s what I’m hoping. There’s a strange kicker, though. He’s a neurologist. Dr. Daniel Miller.”

She raised her eyebrows in question.

“It gets more interesting. He worked at Deer Island.”

“On the cadavers?”

“Possibly. There’s a neurobiology unit there.” He paused. “So maybe he hit on something somebody would rather we didn’t know.”

“Official Aeon would never do this.”

“You sure?”

“Maybe it has to do with his work, but I also think a citizen was involved to make sure you’d come. It could be an ambush, Flynn.”

“Probably is.”

“How did it go down?”

“He went out on a mountain bike. When he didn’t return at sundown, his wife called for help. The bike was located at dawn. The cops brought hounds, but his scent was only on the bike.”

“But they found the body anyway?”

“In a wetland a few hundred feet from his house. Same condition as the derelicts. Lips cut off, genitals and eyes dissected out, drowned.” So far, more than twenty homeless people had been taken off the streets, mostly in the northeastern United States, brutally and bizarrely mutilated, then drowned in the Atlantic and returned to locations near where they’d been picked up.

“We need some advice from Aeon,” Diana said.

“And how are we going to get that?”

“The two police forces, working together—”

“Don’t even start. There’s one police force: us. Ever since Oltisis, Aeon’s side has been all smoke and mirrors.”

“For God’s sake, don’t do any more killing.”

He locked eyes with her.

She looked away. “The other side objects more strenuously every time you kill another one, Flynn. They want them back.”

He said nothing.

“They have laws just like we do! They want these creatures back for trial and punishment.”

“No, they don’t. They’re not creatures.”

“That’s a matter for debate.”

“You haven’t fought them. I know when I’m dealing with a machine—believe me. No matter how high-end its brain is.”

“They don’t want them killed. Bottom line.”

“If they want them back, tell them to damn well come and get them.”

“If you’re wrong about what they are, you’re committing murder.”

“We’re disabling machines, not killing people. Anyway, this is our planet. So, our laws.”

“Which don’t include blowing away perps like—” She hesitated, unsure of how to continue.

Flynn knew exactly how. He said, “Like they’re broken machines and cannot be stopped in any other way.”

“Aeon is far in advance of us technologically, Flynn. Far more powerful. When they complain, we need to listen.”

“‘Aeon’ consists of messages translated from a language we barely understand, coming from someplace we can’t even find, that will not send a replacement for the one policeman they did give us, or even explain what they think happened to him.”

“Oltisis was killed in Chicago, not on Aeon.”

“And what about a replacement? Or, God forbid, even two. Or fifty? Why don’t they send us a whole team of detectives and a nice chunk of SWAT? Seems the logical thing to do.”

“They regard this as a small problem. One we can handle ourselves. They haven’t sent support, out of respect for us.”

“Have you ever told them the truth?”

“What truth?”

“That only one person is able to even get near these critters? I need support, Diana. The risk is just incredible.”

“We have messages that specifically forbid you to kill, as you know. You’ve got to promise me you’ll abide by them.”

“So what do I do? Bag them up? Drag them off to a supermax?”

She sighed. She knew perfectly well that they could not be contained.

“Over the past nine months, I’ve done four. If Aeon’s telling the truth and this is a rogue band, maybe I can wrap the problem up on this mission. Finish the thing.”

She leaned far back in her chair, her long dark hair falling behind her, her green eyes, so deceptively soft, filling with uneasy calculation. Her face, an almost perfect oval, took on an expression that Flynn knew all too well. When she was twenty, it must have been a soft face, sweet with invitation. Her journey to thirty had been a hard one, though, during which she’d seen death and done some killing. Her face still said angel, but now it also said soldier. Hidden behind that cloud of Chanel was a woman with a tragic secret: The blood of some of her own cops was on her hands. Flynn knew she was as haunted by the deaths of members of their original team, who had been killed by Morris and his group, as he was by Abby’s disappearance.

“Losing you would be a phenomenal disaster, Flynn. You’re right about that. I’m going to have to order you to stand down on this one.”

For a little while in the dangerous period when they had been tracking Morris, the two of them were together twenty-four hours a day, sleeping in the same room for mutual protection, and they got to be a thing—sort of, anyway. They had wanted each other, but he was not able to dismiss Abby’s ghost. Four years ago, their affair was an act of desperation, which had faded when the threat became less. With her sitting in the boss’s chair and him married to a ghost, he considered it entirely over.

“Time, Diana. I’ve gotta move.”

“You heard me.”

As he walked out, he called Transportation and told the operator, “I want to be in Mountainville, PA, in best time.”

Diana came up behind him.

He walked faster.

“Flynn, at least wear the rig.”

The rig was designed to record his moves, to be used in a training film. “Nope.”

“Unless you wear it, we can’t hope to teach others. You can’t work alone forever, Flynn.”

“Fine. Hire Mac.” MacAdoo Terrell was an old friend from Texas. He’d worked the Morris case with them. He was among the best sniper shots in the world, if not the best, and Flynn could use a sniper in this.

“You know I can’t.”

“No rig. Forget the rig.”

She hurried along, working to keep up as he strode out of the command center.

“Flynn, please!”

He stopped. “The rig contains electronics. As I have previously explained, when I wear it, the electronics will be detected, and therefore, I will fail to engage the perpetrators. Of course, they may well engage me, in which case, I’m done.”

“Do not go out there.”

“I could end this!”

“Flynn, it’s a trap, and you’re completely buying in to it. I don’t get why you don’t see this.”

“If you know you’re entering a trap, it’s not a trap—it’s a mistake on the part of your enemy. So I’m gonna walk into their mistake—and they don’t make many—and I will not lose this chance.”

“Flynn, will you grant me one favor? A small one?”

“I’m not gonna wear the rig—but, yeah, something else.”

“Come back alive.”

“Fine. Done. Good-bye.”

This time, she stayed behind. He passed through the two departments that concealed the command center, went to the transport hub, and got in the waiting SUV.

The driver was silent. Flynn was silent. Usual routine. He spent the drive to Dulles looking at satellite views of Mountainville. Frustrated by what he was seeing, he texted Logistics: Throw me something better than Google Maps.

That’s all we have. Not a strategic location.

He punched in the tech’s phone number.

The answer was immediate. “Sir?”

“Get to the Pennsy Department of Geology, or whatever they call it over there. You want a map that details any isolated watercourses within two miles of the house. Mountain streams, that type of thing. Any that are spring fed and absolutely pure. And any caves, crevasses, rocky areas, especially near the good water. You want a map that shows all of that. You got it, you call me. Make it fast—it’s as urgent as they come.”

He put down his phone, then returned to the Google map. Steep hills, lots of cliffs, which meant exposed climbing. For them, the best terrain. For him, the worst.

The car dropped him at general aviation, and he strode quickly through to the waiting plane.

As he entered the cabin, he asked the pilot only one question: “How long?”

“An hour and sixteen minutes.”

“Get me there in an hour.” If this had any chance of working, he had to be ready by sunset. Maybe the aliens would be there one more night. Not two, though. Never happen.

“Sir?”

“I know the plane. It can do it.”

“It’ll risk the engines.”

“Do it.”

Once they were airborne, he called the unit’s FBI liaison officer. “Flynn here. Get the body out of the hands of the locals immediate. Standard procedure: autopsy and record, then freeze. Provide the family with stock ashes in an urn. The local cops are to be told that this is a terrorism matter. If they talk, they’re gonna be spending the rest of their lives inside. Obviously, make certain there’s no press.”

“Got it,” the liaison officer said.

The engines howled. The pilot was running them as ordered.

Flynn watched the land slide past far below, the trees tinged with autumn, little towns nestled in among them, America in its quiet majesty, her people in their innocence.

He wanted things to be right for them. He hadn’t been able to protect Abby, but he could protect them, at least a little, at least for a while.

As always at such moments, he wished he had Mac with him. They’d grown up together but gone down opposite paths. Mac was a criminal, more or less, so tangled up in being a DEA informant and massaging the drug cartels, you couldn’t tell at any given time which side of the law he was on.

If Flynn missed anybody besides Abby, it was Mac. He’d helped wreck Morris’s operation just like he lived his generally illegal life—with skill, ease, and pleasure.

His extensive criminal record made him a security risk. So no clearance, which meant no job, despite the fact that he’d been effective and, unlike most of the others who worked on that case, lived. Morris had been running his operations out of a ranch near Austin, Texas, complete with bizarre intelligence-enhanced animals and human accomplices.

Flynn slid his hand over the butt of his pistol. What success he’d had—the killing of four of the things so far—came from one central fact: He had become very, very fast with his weapons. None of the trainees he’d been given so far were able to come even close.

It wasn’t too surprising, given that a man could practice for a lifetime and never learn to shoot a pistol as fast as Flynn could. He’d always been good with a gun, but in the past few months, he’d reached a level of proficiency that was, frankly, difficult even for him to understand.

The engine note changed, dropping. The plane shuddered, headed down. Flynn looked at his watch. Fifty-four minutes.

He hit the intercom. “Thank you.”

The reply was a burst of static. The pilot was probably thinking about whom he’d have to deal with if he blew his engines.

From the air, Mountainville appeared to be little more than a few stores and some houses tucked in among a low range of hills. The single-strip airfield wasn’t manned. The plane could land, though, and that’s all that mattered.

The place looked the picture of peace, but Flynn knew different. Somewhere down there a man had endured what was probably the worst death a human being could know.

Also down there, he had reason to hope, would be his quarry.

The plane bounced onto the runway and trundled to a stop, its engines still roaring. He got out and crossed the tarmac to the car that had been left for him. As per established procedure, the vehicle was dropped off by the regional FBI office. Nobody was to meet him. What Flynn did, he did alone.

He tossed his duffel bag into the trunk, then got behind the wheel. He sat silently, preparing himself for whatever might come. Then he started the engine.

The hunter was as ready as he could be. He headed off toward Mountainville, and whatever might linger there.

 

CHAPTER TWO

THE TAIL Flynn had been expecting showed up ten minutes after he left the airport. Now he drove down a quiet country road—two lanes, not in good repair, choked on both sides with pines. Diana’s tail was about a mile behind, staying out of sight, or imagining that he or she was doing so.

As he drove, the forest on his left fell away to reveal an open field. Beyond it was Mountain Ridge, a low rise of land shadowed by the darkness of the pines that covered it. Somewhere along that ridge, Daniel Miller had met his end.

Flynn noticed a flicker of movement in the rearview mirror. He sped up a little, drove until he saw a mailbox ahead, the name MILLER painted on it. He turned quickly into the drive and sped up the unpaved double track.

He began to see flickering light bars winking through the trees ahead. So the locals still hadn’t left, which was not good. The longer the body stayed out there, the more chance for word of its condition to spread. Public knowledge would turn very quickly into public terror if the world realized what was happening.

At that moment, his cell phone vibrated. It was a text—and an odd one: the number three repeated three times. Nothing else. It wasn’t a police code, at least not one familiar to a Texas cop.

He glanced in the rearview, but the apparent tail was gone, so he killed the phone and pulled over. He looked for the number where the text had originated, but it was blocked. He called Diana.

“Did you just text me a three-code of some sort?”

“No, I did not. What did you get?”

“Three threes from a blocked number.”

“Some sort of phone scam?”

“On a line this secure? I don’t think so.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“By the way, pull off your tail.”

“Flynn, you need somebody on your back.”

“The poor guy is vulnerable as hell, you know that.” Only it wasn’t just any FBI agent pulled in for the duty. It was Diana herself, of course. Soon enough, he’d send her packing.

He hung up and returned to his drive. A moment later, the phone buzzed again.

“Go ahead.”

“You got your maps.”

He killed the phone and pulled over. Drawing his iPad out of his duffel, he examined the maps he’d been sent. They were eleven years old, but far more detailed than what he’d found on Google. He saw the Miller cabin, and another cabin two miles away. Could be others around by now, but from the look of the woods he was in, not too many. Good. The fewer people who were exposed to this, the better.

There was a little stream, called a “kill” in this area, from the original Dutch word kil. This part of Pennsylvania had originally been settled by immigrants from Holland. Hecker Kill descended from the mountains, passing no structures until it went under the road and meandered across the flats toward the Delaware River. So the water in the upper reaches would be as pure as Earth could make it, the milk of the planet, just the kind of water the creatures liked best. There were also deep ravines.

If the aliens were in one of those ravines, that could be useful. The deepest of them also had a pool at the bottom, and caves.

They liked hiding in caves, and the nearby water supply would likely make that their first choice. Somewhere between here and there would be the point of ambush.

He looked long at the map, committing all the elevations to memory. Too bad there were no water depths. He might have to take one hell of a risk involving that pool, and it had been a dry autumn.

Thinking out confrontations with the aliens was like playing chess for your life.

He started the car again. Soon the drive was choked on both sides by dense growths of pine. As he proceeded up the dark, steepening track, he prepared to meet Eve Miller.

He felt his body relax into a scholar’s slump, felt his breathing become less measured. He’d be Dr. Robert Winter, an infectious disease specialist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He counted the ruts of six vehicles in the drive—one of them large enough to be an ambulance. Or, in this case, a coroner’s wagon. The tire marks went in only one direction. So nobody had left yet. He wasn’t about to expose himself to the local cops. The FBI guys had better be in control of that body by now, and all evidence confiscated. The tail he’d deal with in due time.

The drive ascended steeply, penetrating into thicker and thicker stands of pines and oaks, ash and maple. Lovely spot.

He reached the row of official vehicles parked at cockeyed angles in the grassy roadside. There were two black FBI Fords, the coroner’s wagon, and two sheriff’s department cruisers.

Farther on, he could see a log cabin huddled under an overhanging oak.

He pulled his car up past the official vehicles and into the gravel roundabout in front, then sat listening and watching, just letting himself settle into the scene. Then he opened his duffel again and took out his weapons.

He carried two pistols. His main weapon was a Casull Raging Bull loaded with .454 rounds. It was a superbly engineered pistol that could handle high-speed shooting and still provide accuracy, so long as you were practiced with it. Its ported barrel reduced recoil, giving it an accuracy edge. The other weapon was also a Casull, this one a .454 quarter-inch—basically a Police Special with more juice. In the past, he’d carried an AMT Backup, but the Casull offered both more power and accuracy.

He attached the Bull, still in its holster, to his right hip with a clip, then locked the holster into the belt. The little pistol he tucked into a shoulder holster under his left arm. His guns were protected by a biometric array, which made it impossible for anybody else to fire them.

So the aliens couldn’t shoot him with his own pistol, but they had a lot of other ways of dealing with him. If they got him, he knew that it would be slow. They made their victims suffer, and they would undoubtedly pay special attention to him.

In the event of capture, he had a way out. He withdrew a black steel box from the duffel and opened it. Inside were two silver capsules, each a quarter of an inch long. He took one out, then looked at its chemically treated seating in the box for any discoloration that would reveal even a microscopic leak. He then fitted the cyanide capsule into the back of his jaw. Crack it, and he would be dead in three seconds.

He went up onto the porch and pressed the doorbell.

Nobody came. So had the widow left? If so, the ambush could be about to go down right here, right now.

He rang the bell a second time.

The door creaked. An eye flickered in the peephole.

“I’m Dr. Winter from the CDC,” he said.

There was a faint scraping sound behind the door. She was sliding her fingernails along the doorframe, unsure about whether to open it.

“I have a few questions, ma’am.”

The lock clicked and the door swung open. Standing before him was a woman of perhaps forty, her considerable beauty wrecked by lack of sleep. No tears, though. He noted that.

“Please come in,” she said.

He found himself in a large living room with a cathedral ceiling. There were checked curtains on the windows, and a couch upholstered to repeat the pattern. An oak coffee table stood before the couch. Two deep recliners faced it. In the open kitchen he could see a Bosch dishwasher and a Sub-Zero fridge. A collection of copper pots, all of them gleaming, hung from a rack above a broad granite countertop.

“Very nice,” he said.

“Thank you. The CDC. Is that why they won’t let me see my husband? Is some sort of a disease involved?”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

She gave him a defiant look, her eyes full of fire and sadness.

“When you last saw him, he was riding out toward the ridge?”

“On his mountain bike. It’s in the cop report. Why is someone from the CDC here?” She added in a low, ominous voice, “What happened to his eyes, his face?”

“You did see him, then.”

“The sheriff came up here after he found him. He showed me—” She shook her head.

“Pictures?”

She nodded.

He would make certain that the FBI got those pictures, and they ended up in a shredder. “Did he say what he thinks happened?”

“He fell off his bike and became disoriented. But that doesn’t leave a man all cut up, not like that.” She looked him up and down, blinking once when she noticed the bulge on his right hip. “You’re not from any Centers for Disease Control.”

No point in continuing the lie. “No, I’m not.”

“So it’s not a disease?”

“No.”

“Are you here about Dan’s clearance?”

“Did he talk about his work?”

She considered that, then shook her head.

He pressed her. “What did he tell you?”

“Nothing.”

He went to the couch. “May I sit down?”

“I can’t stop you.”

“If you tell me to leave, I’ll leave.” He wouldn’t, but hopefully she wasn’t going to try that particular path.

“I know what you are.”

“And what would that be?”

“Like I said, you’re worried if his clearance was compromised.”

“I want to help you.”

“How in the world can you help me?”

“By finding who did this and bringing them to justice. May I know your first name?”

“I’m Eve. But shouldn’t you know that?”

“It’s in the file, but I prefer to ask.” He tried a smile. No reaction. He asked her smoothly, “What do you think happened to Dan?”

“What do I think? I don’t know what to think. He fell off his bike. He was maimed. He drowned in two feet of water. It’s not exactly a straight story, is it?”

“No, it isn’t.”

She fell silent. Grief? No, not quite. When her eyes came back to him, there was a nasty little spark. But why? What was she hiding?

“Is this work-related?” she asked. “Are you trying to tell me he was murdered, is that what this is about?”

“We don’t know what happened.”

“But it could have been murder, or someone like you wouldn’t be here. And the local cops aren’t going to be told, are they?”

“They’re going to close it out as an accident.”

“And the FBI?”

“They’re here because of his clearance. To make sure no classified information slips out in the course of the investigation.” He paused. “Look back to before this happened. Anyone come up to the house who was unexpected?”

“That’s why he was out there in the first place. Three children came to the door. They asked if they could come in. I asked what they wanted, and they just walked off the porch and sort of wandered back into the woods.”

“And you’d never seen them before?”

“They looked like little tramps. They were filthy. They smelled. And no, I don’t know where they came from.” She drew her shoulders together. “They made us worry that drifters were camping in our woods. We have three hundred acres of this mountain.”

The aliens could hypnotize the unwary into seeing them as deer, as owls, even as children. They could put hallucinations in your mind, damned convincing ones. “What do you remember about the kids?”

He watched her eyes flutter closed. She was trying hard. She said, “I was glad they left.” She leaned toward him. Her voice a low whisper, she continued, “I found them loathsome.”

“But no more details?”

“Were they part of this? Because they were not normal children. No way.”

He offered the simplest and safest of all the lies he could have told her: “No, they weren’t part of this.”

“I want to believe you.”

“Let’s think back again. Besides the kids?”

“Nothing important.”

“Everything is important.”

“He was murdered. That’s why you’re here.”

Flynn did not reply.

“Did you work with him? Can you at least tell me that?”

“I did not,” he said.

“You’re like him—you come off as a real gentleman, but inside you’re tough as nails.”

“He was a hard man?”

“Strong. Like you.”

He nodded. “Now, think back. Anything else? Anything last night?”

She looked into the middle distance. Flynn watched the pulse in her throat. He’d interrogated too many people to watch her eyes. Do that, and even a person with nothing to hide would spar with you. Lower your gaze, and they feel an unconscious sense of control, even though they are not in control.

“You know, there is.” She leaned forward. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”

“I understand.”

“Very late, there was an owl at the bedroom window.”

“An owl? Had that ever happened before?”

“Never. It was just looking in at me. I hit the window with a pillow, and it flew away.”

Owls didn’t look in windows, so the aliens had been here as recently as last night. They’d still been interested in her twelve hours ago, so maybe their interest was ongoing. Maybe she was also a target, or, as was more likely, they had planned their ambush of him near the house, and wanted to be sure he would be nearby tonight, protecting her.

“Let’s talk about Dan and Deer Island. What do you know?”

“His employee number was 333676. I knew very little else. It was all secret.”

The first part of the number sent enough of a shock through Flynn that he had to drop his head for an instant, so she wouldn’t see his expression.

In that same instant, the blocked number became a central issue. He needed to find out at once who was behind it.

He lifted his lips into the appearance of a smile. “Tell me the very little.”

“What you want to know is whether or not he shared his secrets with me. He didn’t. I just figured a few things out.”

“Run down what he did tell you.”

“His project was called Dream Weaver. He did a lot of work with hypnosis, which I figured out from things he said.”

The project name didn’t ring any bells, but the fact that he worked with hypnosis meant that he almost had to be involved with the bodies. The question of how the aliens could hypnotize people without speaking to or touching them was of major interest to the U.S. government, especially the intelligence community.

“Anything else? Anything at all?”

“Three nights ago, we thought we heard somebody on the porch.” She nodded decisively, fixing it in her memory. “We did.”

“After the children or before?”

“After. It’s what finally decided Dan to investigate up the ridge.”

“He was armed with what?”

“Not armed. We’re not gun people.” She glanced again at his hip.

“I’m a police officer,” he said. He lifted his jacket to reveal the butt of the big pistol.

“From where? What department?”

“Can’t answer, I’m sorry.”

Given that Dan Miller worked in an advanced facility that was involved with the mysteries of alien neurology, Flynn was now almost certain that he had been looking for a meeting with them, not a confrontation with squatters. They had granted him a meeting, all right—his last.

“I’m going to spend the night out in your woods. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t leave the house.”

“Are you serious?”

“Your husband worked against terrorists. They killed him, and I’m going to see if I can track them.”

“It’s almost dark.”

“They might still be out there. You need to know that.”

“Then I’m going back to the city.” She clutched her shoulders. “I don’t want to be here anymore.”

“Leave in the morning.”

“I want to leave now.”

“Ma’am, I don’t want you out on those roads in the dark. This is a lonely place. Safer in the house with the doors locked. And turn on your alarm system.”

The wall clock hummed in the kitchen. A breeze toyed with the pines outside. He raised his eyebrows, asking for a response.

“I think you’re the saddest man I’ve ever seen. Why is that?”

“Just stay in the house. You can leave in the morning.”

Should he tell her what was really going on, that she was a pawn in a deadly chess game?

The words hung on his lips, ready to be spoken.

She said, “Yes?”

If she thought the “terrorists” were going to come after her tonight, she’d certainly leave, which would change things in unpredictable ways.

He believed that he could protect her. He believed that he could kill aliens here tonight, and save future lives as well.

“Again, please accept my condolences.”

She smiled, sadly and tightly. “Do you want a cup of coffee? I didn’t even offer you coffee.”

He gave her a salute.

She returned a wary smile.

As he went down the pathway from the house, she leaned against the doorjamb watching him. Then he rounded the big old oak, and she was blocked from his view.

When one of the official vehicles down below started up, he stepped off the road, moving swiftly back into the trees. The FBI would have told the locals to leave him alone, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

Now it would start, the first phase of a hard night of hunting.

His tongue went to his cyanide capsule, his hand to his gun. He turned his back on the parade of vehicles lumbering away down the road, and slipped into the forest.

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Whitley Strieber is the bestselling author of more than twenty-five books, including the legendary Warday, Nature’s End, and Superstorm, the basis of the movie The Day After Tomorrow. His most recent books, The Grays and 2012: The War for Souls, are both being made into films.  His website, Unknown Country, is the largest of its kind in the world, exploring the edge of science and reality.

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