The 37th Parallel
CHAPTER 1 37.2841° N, 108.7787° W
September 12, 2000. A stretch of interstate highway winding along the base of the Ute Mountain Range near the Colorado–New Mexico border, a little after 4:00 p.m.
In a panoramic splash of pine trees and puffs of falling snow, flashes of brilliant sunlight reflected off the cap of Ute Peak, the Sleeping Mountain, high above. And then a beat-up RV lumbered into view. Over the rumble of the camper’s engines rose the off-key tenor of an all-American family sing-along.
Chuck Zukowski was at the wheel of the twenty-four-foot Winnebago Warrior Class A, both hands tapping out the rhythm of “Sweet Home Alabama” on the thick vinyl of the steering wheel cover. Early forties, sandy-haired, fit, Chuck was smiling as he navigated the camper down the serpentine asphalt. His three kids were in the back, one girl and two boys, and his wife, Tammy, a pretty brunette, was up front, joining Chuck in keeping the beat with her fingers against the dash. From the lines beneath Chuck’s blue eyes, it was obvious that they’d been driving for quite some time, but there was enough vivid scenery flashing by outside to keep even the youngest kid from getting bored. This sort of road trip was something the Zukowski clan enjoyed. In fact, when Chuck finally spotted the small ranch-style motel along the highway, coinciding
with the notice from the dulcet tone of the RV’s audio GPS, he was almost reluctant to pull in for the night.
After parking the RV in the empty motel lot, Chuck grabbed a pair of room keys from the lobby manager, and the Zukowski family settled into two adjoining rooms overlooking a tarp-covered pool. The kids went straight for the TV in their room, after a quick dinner, microwaved to perfection in the RV, but next door, Tammy headed for the bed and sank into it with a tattered paperback, exhausted from the long day in the camper.
A few hours later, the kids finally let the TV get some rest, and Chuck closed the door between the two rooms. The sun was long gone outside, the view of the shuttered pool replaced by an inky blackness, broken only by the occasional flare of neon from the vacancy sign hanging above the motel lobby. Tammy was still digging into the paperback, but Chuck could tell she was down for the night. He ran his fingers through her hair and then told her he was going out for a short walk. Barely looking up from the book, she asked him to get some ice from the machine on his way back.
He took the ice bucket from the mantel by the door and headed out to the parking lot. Opening the back of the RV, he leaned into a four-by-four storage compartment and reached toward a locked strongbox affixed to one wall. With a jangle of keys, he pried open the box and exchanged the ice bucket—which he would fill when he returned to the Winnebago—for his equipment: a three-pound police flashlight, a video recorder, an EMF counter, and three rectangular batteries. Then he reached for the leather holster hanging from a hook at the back of the box and removed his .40 caliber Glock from it before checking the cartridges and strapping it to his waist.
By the time he exited the RV, snow had started to fall again, but even so he could see the headlights snaking toward him down the desolate highway.
• • •
Two hours later Chuck was breathing hard as he burst through the last line of thick pines into a clearing following his two companions—an athletic man, midthirties, sporting a pony tail and dressed in a thick hunting jacket with a machete slung over one shoulder, and a thin, slightly older woman struggling along in a bulky snowsuit and too many scarves. Tufts of low grass covered in snow punctuated the field of icy gravel. The three of them were now at least eight thousand feet up, high enough to feel the altitude; the other man, Joe Fex, part Native American, a rugged outdoorsman reared on the ranches that pockmarked this corner of the country, was barely sweating as he began setting up their makeshift campsite, raising a canvas tent to protect their equipment. But the woman was trembling from exhaustion and certainly fear. Chuck had no worries about Fex; the big man was an old friend and had accompanied Chuck on many similar excursions over the years. But the woman was a wild card; Chuck had met her over the Internet not two weeks earlier, and the drive over to the base of this hike was the longest time Chuck had spent with her in person. Chuck would have been much happier if they could have left her behind—but it was her information that had brought them to this spot.
According to her website, she was supposed to be some sort of psychic. Chuck wasn’t the type to judge anyone—for all he knew she had a cemetery full of dead people on speed dial. More likely, she was batshit crazy, but it didn’t really matter. As usual, Chuck had done his research. The psychic might have been the first to turn him on to this particular location, but now he had a case file an inch thick on this place.
Case file or no, the next two hours licked past in near silence, the three of them getting colder as the wind picked up, rustling through the nearby pines and sending ice chips and gravel skittering across the ground. Chuck wondered if they should cut out and chalk it up as another
in a long list of wild-goose chases. In a few more hours, the kids would be waking up, and Tammy would want to get back on the road and find someplace for a good, cheap breakfast. Maybe there was a Denny’s somewhere up the interstate.
Chuck froze midthought, as he noticed something strange. The wind seemed to have stopped—not gradually, but suddenly—and the air went silent. He opened his mouth to say something to Joe, but before he could get the words out, there was a sudden flash of light in the pitch-black sky above. Incredibly bright, at least three hundred feet up—and it stayed lit. Before Chuck could shout for Joe to grab the camera from the tent, a second light joined the first, and the two flashes sprinted through the air in a wide arc. Then, it seemed as if the entire sky had opened up, lights exploding everywhere, brighter than the Fourth of July.
“Holy shit!” Chuck screamed. “Joe . . .”
Joe was already dashing at full speed around the psychic—who had curled into a ball on the ground, her face a mask of pure terror—and into the tent. He quickly returned with the camera and all three batteries. Chuck grabbed the camera from Joe’s shaking hands, turned it toward the sky, hit the button—and . . . nothing.
The camera was dead.
Chuck cursed, yanking the battery out of the device, jamming the second fresh battery into the base. He hit the button again. And again, nothing. He tried the third battery, but it was obvious all three batteries were now, inexplicably, completely drained. Chuck felt his pulse rocketing in his veins. To have one backup battery go out would have been unusual—but all three?
“What the hell are they?” Joe shouted, as the two men stared at the lights arcing back and forth through the sky above them. “Helicopters?”
Chuck shook his head. His mouth was dry, his chest constricted with fear. He’d never seen anything like this before.
“No way. Helicopters can’t move like that. Or fly that close together.”
“A meteor shower?
Some sort of discharge? Or . . .”
And just as suddenly as they had started, the lights vanished. Completely. The sky went back to black. A strange, intense silence spread across the clearing, severe as a leather belt snapping tight. Not a single tree branch twitched.
And then a high-pitched scream pierced the air, from somewhere below the tree line, maybe two hundred feet down the mountain.
Christ. Chuck looked at Joe as the screaming grew louder. There was a crashing of tree branches: Whatever was making that noise was coming toward them. Some sort of animal, maybe an elk or a moose, running at full speed, screaming that unnerving, terrified scream. Bearing down on them, louder and louder, diving headlong through the pines toward the clearing . . .
And then just as suddenly as it had started, the noise cut off dead, midscream. The animal, whatever it was, had been running from something. Something that had taken it down in a single stroke.
The breeze picked back up, and the night switched back to normal, as if none of what Chuck and his companions had just experienced had ever happened.
Chuck stared at Joe, at the way the big man was shivering beneath his hunting jacket, and then at the psychic, who was sobbing on the ground. Then he looked down at his own trembling hands, one of which was resting on the hilt of his .40, still in its holster.
He shook his head, completely unnerved.
“Whatever ran that animal down—this Glock isn’t near big enough, is it?”
At that, even in his terrified state, he almost cracked a smile.