Mayor of the Bleachers

Chapter One

When Barr saw the twister, this towering rope of fog that danced across the field like a braid of wind, he wondered for a second if there might be a catch, if what he was seeing was real.  But then the funnel charged into a line of trees, flattening the timber like a boot on wet grass, and he knew he’d finally chased one down.

He was too far east for an intercept, so he downshifted and floored the pedal, made the exhaust pipes trill deep inside their chrome throats.  Now he was doing eighty on the wet two-lane, ignoring his delivery route and the cases of jiggling, clinking, rattling beer bottles inside the thirty-foot truck.  Straight ahead lightning blinked inside the dark cotton sky, tiny flashlights under a blanket.  To his right a wall cloud extended north two miles, maybe three, and he scanned for signs of rotation.

Running on instinct he turned left on Missouri M, struggled to keep the rig on the road; branches slithered across the pavement like snakes.  On the seat next to him the Stiles WeatherVest had already come to life, a half-dozen instruments clicking and whirling, streaming their data to TORN-Star IV, high above in geosynchronous orbit.

He wished Agnes could see him in action, the way he rolled down the window and just sniffed the air, sniffed the storm.  But she was probably curled up in a warm booth back in Gale, reading some Russian brain pill.  Besides, she would only slow him down because she didn’t have a clue about S.O.S., Dr. Matthew G. Stiles’ Seven Operative Strategies for battling a twister.

The Deacon was in Barr’s thoughts, too, worming into his mind, whispering hot breaths of shame that cut easily through the wind.  Sad that the old bastard could be here even now, a time when there shouldn’t have been anything but the storm and the joy of the chase.  A guy could understand being haunted during the quiet moments, those long drives past stubby sprouting fields, the hours spent inside walk-in coolers filled with tight smells of meats and cheeses, stacking the beer cases, lift and drop, lift and drop.  But even now, in the heat of the hunt, the Deacon pawed and poked at his psyche like one of those retarded Hindu gods with six spindly, liver-spotted arms.

He shook everything clear and kept his head on a swivel.  Like Stiles drummed home in his newsletters, “A true stormchaser has fast reflexes and an empty mind.”  Twisters were nimble, darting creatures, the kind that literally formed out of thin air.  His heart thumped at the possibility of seeing a wraith, the Holy Grail of stormchasing: a tiny wisp of gray-black air that materialized from nowhere during a tornado’s birth.

Two miles more and he pulled over, parked where the highway curved to the north.  Up ahead was a cow hydroponics billboard, its half-naked model smiling gorgeously at the world.  He stepped down and strapped on the Stiles WeatherVest, buckled the plastic clasps, tightened the chest straps.  The anemometer was whirling inside the Gore-Tex, a squeaky little hamster wheel going crazy in the wind along with the other probes and vents and measuring devices, all stitched into the fabric and sucking up the humid air with enormous, greedy gulps.

“This is Barr Bradlee, honorary researcher 3752.  Location, Ralls County, Missouri, six miles northwest of Gale,” he said into the built-in microphone.  “Snake funnel touchdown spotted moving south southwest at forty miles per hour, narrow damage area, dissipating toward rope stage.  Have taken intercept position, awaiting second contact.”

Oddly, the Stiles WeatherVest had no hood, and now the rain was stinging the side of his face, running cold down his neck.  He wondered if blood was cold, too, or would you feel the heat as it gushed through your skin, warm and sticky, straight from the heart?

When the twister reappeared it was black, not white, and the rope had turned into an upside-down triangle, enormous through the mist.  The base was a half-mile wide, ripping up the earth like a router bit through soft pine.

“Wedge tornado!” Barr screamed into the recorder.  “One mile, right to left!”

There was a string of high-tension power lines running diagonally through the field.  He saw a white-flash fireball of electricity, a tiny sun, and the first tower came down, metal twisting, screeching like a rusty swing as it bent and snapped in a dozen places.  He fumbled with the lipstick camera attached to one of the buttons, but his fingers twitched, the record button was tiny and the twister was getting closer.  Everything was rain-wrapped and confused.

“Twister veering toward me!  Quarter of a mile!  Visibility low!  Preparing to launch probe!”

He moved to the other side of the truck and detached the slingshot from its pocket.  Unfolding the wristlock, he loaded a ping-pong probe into the leather pouch.  Resting his elbows on the hood, he felt the metal vibrating from the running diesel, a tremble, as if the truck were getting a bad case of the jitters.

Just then, Barr felt the wind ratchet from west to south, a fan shifting direction.  The tornado seemed to hover for a moment, spinning in place, gigantic clods of earth and crops hurling in every direction.  And then the clouds and the rain and the fog around the monster cleared, so the twister seemed to rear up – ten, fifteen, twenty stories high – and charged across the field like it suddenly had an idea, like it suddenly remembered where to go.

Sprinting straight for him.

Barr pulled the slingshot back and launched the probe, watched it disappear into the inflow jet, sucked up into the funnel.

“Probe deployed!” he screamed, but now nobody could hear him, the wind was too loud, the world was shouting in pain, and he ran to the far ditch and dove for cover.  Mud and rocks and wood came down with the rain as the twister chewed up the ground between them, maybe twenty seconds away, thirty at most.  The slingshot disappeared from his hand, just one more piece of jetsam, and he buried his face into the wet grass as the woman on the billboard exploded into a thousand smiling splinters.

Ten seconds, and he felt the terrible crushing pressure because the twister wanted him dead. This wasn’t a science experiment anymore, an adrenaline chase, a cool stream of video.  This was murder in broad daylight.  And now he was being lifted, five seconds to go, vacuumed into the storm, and the world turns into a fine mist of water and blood, time is up, the WeatherVest is ripped from his body and he’s half-flying, half-skipping across a bean field like a hard hit grounder to third.