1
     A candle, sputtering on a darkened shelf, cast twisted shadows onto the wall. The wall was only five feet away, but in front of it, he saw a black shape on the floor, darker than a shadow. It terrified him. The boy hunched inside the storage locker, curled into himself, hugging a rifle against his chest, the barrel mouth pressed under his chin. The blackness, almost like a chasm, pulled at him. He clamped shut his eyes. No. He forced himself to open them, to look, though he felt immobilized. Waves of rage buffeted him, then fear, then rage again, storm-tossed waves, billowing, battering. As each surge ebbed, a new crush of panic, fury, confusion rolled over him. Hanging on, he pressed harder against the cold steel rifle, as if it were a stanchion on a capsizing ship.
     If I move, I'll kill them.
     He closed his eyes to escape the flickering, jerking shadows. Had he seen blood spattered behind the shadows? Were the screams in his ears real?
     Have I done it already? He pressed his chin harder onto the muzzle, using the pain to block the terror and the fury; it didn’t work. He felt himself sink beneath this storm. He struggled, panted, panted again, then held his breath. Felt himself go under.
     Perhaps he fell asleep.
     Perhaps he died.

      He opened his eyes. The interior of the locker was black. The candle had guttered. For a few moments, its death was a comfort. The storm of hate and horror seemed to have passed, leaving an empty confusion.  How long had he been away? And where? His chest ached from the hard steel. Painfully, he untangled himself, tried to stand. Stiff, dizzy. He braced a hand against the shed wall. After a moment, he searched, his hands blind, for the electric lantern. Knocked the candle over. Found the lamp, flicked it on.
     Dazed by the new light, he squinted, but could make out no blood on the wall. His head, filled with screams before, was silent. Maybe I haven't done it yet. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he counted the rifles stacked in the corner beside the ammunition boxes. No, all here. Not yet, thank God. Eighteen weapons, plus the one lying at his feet. His chest throbbed. He dimly recalled pressing it against his body.
     He carefully aligned his lone weapon on the stack with the others, and arranged the ammunition boxes carefully. Absently, he rubbed his throbbing chest as he doused the lantern and opened the shed door. Early morning sunlight stunned him; he retreated into the darker room, waiting for his eyes to come to terms with the white light. He felt a burst of irritation.
     What's going to stop this fear?
     As his eyes adjusted and he stepped through the door, words came, unformed, shrouded in a kind of mist: something in a class. Something about a third truth. Still irritated, he stepped outside and turned back to lock the door. I'll probably be late for school. He slammed his fist against the storage locker's wall.
     When will this end?


2
     
From across the street, Loretta Tweedy, eighty-nine years and a month, watched the boy lock the shed door, then hit it with his fist. She stage-whispered toward the kitchen, as if the boy could hear, "Ardyss! Come quick! He's coming out!"
     Ardyss Conley, Loretta's friend and roommate, herself only seventy-four, came into the living room, wiping her hands on a flowered apron. "Breakfast is almost ready." She stooped and peered over Loretta’s shoulder through the window. "Awfully early in the morning to be doing whatever he does in there."
     "I tell you," Loretta snapped. "I've seen him at all hours." She pulled the curtain wider. "There, see?" The boy was climbing in his green pickup truck. "Isn't that the Hansen boy?"
     Ardyss chuckled. "And aren't you the nosiest old lady on the block?"
     "Humph. I'm the only old lady on the block. What's he doing in there?"
     Ardyss shrugged. "Why don't you go out there and ask him?"
     Loretta dropped the curtain. "It's not right, a young man like that spending hours in a storage shed. Believe me, he's up to no good."
     Ardyss turned back to the kitchen. "I'll have breakfast on in five minutes. If you're so worried, call the Sheriff's office."
     "They'll think I'm an old busy-body, for heaven's sake."
     "You are an old busy-body. Call that Deputy Pelton. She's a nice girl. Get it out of your system."
     Loretta grumped. "My system indeed." But when Ardyss went into the kitchen, she reached for the telephone. 
     


3

       "April's always fickle, but I'm damned if this one ain't a killer," groused Sheriff Ben Stewart. "First the flood, now this." Standing beside him outside the open storage locker, his deputy Andi Pelton heard a raw catch of anger in his voice, a stifled rage against the violations in his valley. Two weeks ago, eleven inches of rain had drowned half the town. Now, this.
     Ben glared into the open storage locker. Inside, Deputy Pete Peterson scribbled on a clipboard, inventorying a stack of weapons and ammunition boxes. Beside him, Deputy Boyd Ordrew was opening cardboard boxes.
     "Crap on toast," Ben muttered. "This ain't got no business in Monastery Valley."
     Ordrew, his eyes glaring, said, “We got us a mass shooter in training, folks.”
     Andi peered over Ben's shoulder. Visible in the dim locker, beside the rifles, stood a carefully stacked pile of ammunition boxes. She grimaced. "Maybe. Could be another explantion. But thank God for Loretta's tip. Never saw this coming."
     Pete nodded. "Old Loretta's got the eagle eye, all right.” He chuckled. “Even if she does piss off the neighbors."
     The sheriff pulled off his cap and roughly rubbed his graying, curly hair. "Overtime budget's already shot to hell, and this'll put a big dent in what's left — and it ain't even wildfire season yet." He put his cap back on, patted it tight.
     Andi stepped around him, her hand resting briefly on Ben's arm. She leaned into the storage locker. "Pete, can you tell if anyone else beside the Hansen boy was involved?" After Loretta’s call, when they'd phoned the building's owner to meet them and unlock the storage room, he’d told them it had been rented by Jared Hanson, a local boy, seven weeks ago.
     Pete straightened up and shook his head. "No sign of that yet. Just Jared, best I can tell." He stepped out into the sunlight and removed his cap and wiped his forehead. "Damn hot in there. Strange weather." Andi looked up at the iron blue sky; too hot for late April. Ordrew followed Pete out; he too mopped sweat off his face.
     Ben grunted. "Strangest damn month."
    Pete nodded. "Uh-huh.” He gestured into the locker. "This looks wrong as hell."
     "Meanin'?"
     "The Hansens belong to our church. I’ve known Jared since he was seven. Always been a great kid."
     "So, what do you make of it?"
     Pete shrugged. "Beats me. Nine rifles, two-hundred rounds of ammunition. A pressure cooker. Jesus." He shook his head. "This doesn't square with anything I know about the kid."
     Ordrew said, "Isn't it obvious? Pressure cookers? He's prepping for a mass shooting. Maybe a bombing."
      Pete frowned. "Just one pressure cooker. If I didn't know Jared, I'd think maybe, but he's just not right for that."
     Andi asked, "How old is he?"
     "Seventeen, maybe eighteen. He's a senior." Pete turned to Ben. "I know I'm up to catch this investigation, but . . ."
     Ben stopped him. "I'm puttin' Andi in the lead on this one, Pete; you're too close. Boyd, you'll work it with her."
     Ordrew’s eyes darkened, but he shrugged.
     Ben ignored the look, said to Pete. "That good for you?"
     "Thanks, boss. I like Jared too much."
     Andi looked in at the pile of weapons in the shadows. "You said nine rifles? They‘re not semi-automatics."
     "Nope, not one. They're all single-shots, take 30-06 Springfield cartridges. He’s got a couple hundred extra rounds in the boxes."
     "Well, he's not going to shoot them very fast using single-shots. Why nine?"
     "Good question."
     Andi stepped inside the locker, felt the immediate heat, twenty degrees hotter than outside. "Why a pressure cooker?"
     Pete followed her inside, shaking his head. "No idea. There's no shrapnel or explosives."
     Ben, from the doorway, said, "A pressure cooker? Jesus, what's he plannin'?"
     Ordrew frowned. "Think of those assholes in Boston. Seems pretty clear to me."
     Pete said, "Maybe, but he's got nothing to turn them into bombs."
     Ordrew said, "Collecting things a bit at a time. Avoiding notice."
     "Could be. But look at these." Pete squeezed around Andi and reached into a cardboard carton on the shelf. "Weird as hell," he muttered. "Check these out," he said, handing a couple of small books, covers tattered, to Andi. "Books on Buddhism, for God’s sake."
     Ordrew stepped inside, grunted at the heat, and pulled some books from a second box. "Jesus," he muttered. "Listen to these titles: Columbine. Try this: Hunting Humans: The Rise of Modern Multiple Murder." He pulled out a third. "Give a Boy a Gun."
     Andi checked the title of the book in her hand: Living Buddha, Living Christ. "Buddhism and mass murder? Crazy." She riffled the book's dry pages, her forehead wrinkling. Nothing inside. She handed the book back to Pete and said, "Check the pages of the other books," and to Boyd, she said, "You too." The contrast among the books disturbed her. She opened a third cardboard box. "What's this stuff?"
     Inside was a Mason jar filled with black seeds, a can of Zippo lighter fluid, another jar marked "ethanol," some slices of what smelled like ginger, and on a small plate, a tarry residue. 
     Pete picked up the jar of seeds, shook it, placed it back. He stared at the other contents. "No clue."
     Andi took the jar and examined the seeds. "This gets stranger." She turned to Ben. "I want to send all this stuff to DCI up in Helena."
     The sheriff nodded. "Do it."            
     Andi said, "We probably should call and warn Monica. Once this gets out, she'll have a tidal wave of upset students banging down her door."
     Ben frowned. "Her and one part-time school counselor." Monica Sergeant was the high school principal, a year away from retirement. He grabbed his cell phone. "I'll call the high school, give her a head's up." To Andi, he said, "Give your boyfriend a call and tell him to get ready to help the counselor."
     "Ed won't like that," she said. "His practice is busy."
     "Ain't nobody's gonna like none of this," Ben growled. "Call him. That counselor's only here two half-days a week. No way she handles a flood of scared kids alone.”
     Andi said, "I think I better go find young Mr. Hansen and invite him in for a little talk. He's probably at school now."
     Ben, already dialing, stopped for a moment. "Call Ed first, then go. I'll tell Monica pull the boy out of class and keep him in her office till you get there.” He looked at Ordrew. “Boyd, you finish up here, seal the damn locker off, and log the evidence in. We’re callin’ this suspicion.”
     Ordrew frowned. “Suspicion of?”
     Ben frowned back. “Suspicion. We’ll figure out what later. " He resumed dialing.
     Andi touched Ben's arm. "Once I pick Jared up, this'll be all over the valley. Do you think . . .?"
     Ben hit the end-call button, nodded. "Jesus in a sidecar. You're right." He rubbed his face. “Look, I'll hightail it back and work out a statement with Irv Jackson." He looked at his phone and hit speed-dial. In a moment, he said, "Callie, do me a favor. Find the county attorney and set up a meetin'." He listened. "On the phone's better, but I don't care. No more'n fifteen, twenty minutes tops. Don't take no for an answer." He waited. "Whatever. Tell him we got us real trouble." He ended the call and started dialing again. While he waited for the principal to pick up, he said to Andi, "I'll get the statement ready and give it to Callie to read when the calls start floodin' in." He started toward his vehicle, consulting his watch, phone against his ear, then turned back and lifted his voice. "People," he said, "we got us maybe thirty minutes before word gets out and the media start prowlin’ around. Let's get movin'."

As Ben walked toward his vehicle, Andi heard him say, "Monica? Ben Stewart here. You got some major crap about to hit your fan."

​###

Chapter 1 from 

​​Nobody's Safe Here

Nobody's Safe Here was released December 8, 2016! Buy it at: