Here is a sample of an upcoming story – I’ll let you know what happens with it soon enough.
Jon LaForce scrambled down a steep path leading into Tikaboo Valley. He took a swig from the cheap red wine he’d bought from the gas station in the nearby town of Rachel and grimaced.
Almost as soon as the rotgut wine settled in his stomach, a flush crept up Jon’s neck and warmed his cheeks as the first effects of the alcohol took hold. He glanced at the heavy scrub covering the valley before him and frowned. He’d just been fired for the second time this month and wasn’t even sure what had brought him out into the middle of nowhere in southeastern Nevada.
When he was a kid, his friends used to talk about coming out here to spy on the military planes as they took off and landed. After all, this was supposed to be where they kept those aliens at Area 51. Hell, when he was a boy they used to whisper about secret experiments, mysterious clouds in the sky, and of course, UFOs. Since then, the nearby town of Rachel had sprung up, catering to some of the crazies looking for their alien fix.
Jon didn’t believe any of that crap. He doubted any of his friends had ever had the guts to actually sneak onto the grounds to see what was out here. Panning his gaze across the downhill slope, he didn’t see much more than acres of thick desert sagebrush.
Taking another swig from his bottle, Jon felt the buzz from the alcohol as he scrambled down the slope. Suddenly, something broke through the thick sagebrush at the bottom of the trail.
Jon drew his Glock from its holster and took a shooter’s stance, knowing that bobcats sometimes prowled these hills.
As the animal approached, Jon relaxed a bit. It was some stray dog with a dark-brown coat, long tail and floppy ears. It looked like a big chocolate lab.
Jon whistled and then called, “Hey boy, what are you doing out here?”
The dog met his gaze and wagged its tail furiously.
Holstering his gun, he smiled as the lab bounded toward him.
He screwed the top back on the wine bottle, then held his hand out for the dog to sniff. The dog huffed at his hand and ran his nose up and down the legs of his trousers.
Jon noticed a bloody wound on the animal’s front right leg where some fur was missing and asked, “Did something take a bite out of you, old boy?”
The dog whined and glanced back toward the scrub.
Scratching the dog’s head, Jon examined the animal and said, “Your coat’s nice and shiny, and you look well fed.” He shook his head and patted the dog on its back. “You don’t look like you belong out here, boy. Someone’s probably looking for you and I sure as hell can’t take care of you. I can barely take care of myself nowadays. Maybe I should get you to a shelter and see if they can find your owner.”
The rustle of movement in the nearby sagebrush caught Jon’s attention and he turned toward the thicket about fifty yards away.
The dog whined, took a few steps up the slope and turned to him as if to say, “Are you coming?”
Jon ignored the dog and walked toward where he thought he’d heard something.
The lab darted in front of him and gave him a low growl.
He took a step left, skirting past the dog.
Just as he walked by, the dog whined, nipped at the base of his right pant leg and pulled hard on the jeans, away from the bottom of the trail.
“What the hell are you doing, mutt!” Jon yanked his leg away and gave the dog a sideways kick, which it easily dodged.
The dog slowly backed up the slope, all the while whining to get Jon’s attention.
Suddenly, two dark animals burst through the sagebrush and Jon turned to them.
Behind him, the lab yipped and Jon heard the sound of its nails as it raced up the slope.
The newcomers were two more dogs, both nearly identical to the chocolate lab.
But Jon immediately noticed a difference.
Instead of the wagging tails and lolling tongues, these dogs locked their gaze on Jon and lowered their heads as they stalked closer.
He drew his gun, aimed toward the dogs and yelled in a friendly tone, “Hey boys, are you missing a friend of yours?”
As soon as he trained the Glock on the animals they split, one going to his left, the other to his right.
His heart thudded as he backed up the trail. Jon aimed toward the dog on his right and the animal darted behind a nearby boulder.
For a moment, Jon stared at the rock. The dog had reacted as if it knew the gun was dangerous.
Hearing the other dog’s nails scraping on the gravel, he wheeled toward the animal and fired a warning shot.
It was only fifty feet away.
The animal growled as it advanced, using a zigzag pattern that sent a chill up Jon’s spine. It seemed as if the dog was trying to make it difficult to aim.
Gun arm shaking, Jon focused on the approaching dog. For a split second his mind flashed back to when he’d been an artilleryman in Afghanistan. Back then, he’d shot at enemies he could barely see, but for the first time in his life he was within spitting distance of his target as he squeezed the trigger.
The animal had just begun to leap when the bullet slammed into its shoulder.
As the dog fell to the ground with a whimper, Jon felt over one-hundred pounds of canine smash against his back.
The second dog knocked him off his feet and clamped its vice-like jaws on the wrist of his shooting hand.
With heart pounding in his ears, Jon sat up and struggled with the growling animal. He was about to yell when blood splattered into his eyes, his voice suddenly trapped in his throat.
He fell back onto the dirt with the dog he’d shot clamped tight on his throat.
As he struggled, he felt his windpipe close against the impossibly strong jaws of the animal. All of his senses blurred as he strained for breath.
Jon’s vision wavered and with his heart pounding with terror, he prayed, “My god, there’s so much I could have….”
The world faded to gray and then black.
Hans Reinhardt stood at the top of a rocky slope and breathed in the acrid smoke of burning sagebrush. A half-dozen men in fatigues spewed hellfire from their flamethrowers. The sound of stone cracking from the fierce heat echoed across the burning landscape.
The operation had been going well, but now everything had turned to shit. A complete disaster. Despite the assurances from his bosses in the German Federal Intelligence Service and the U.S. handlers in Langley, Hans knew it was time to reset. The operation needed to move to an even more remote location, one with less chance of incidents.
An Air Force Colonel walked up to Hans and handed him a printout. “His name was Jonathan LaForce, Marine artilleryman, ten years out of Afghanistan with an honorable discharge.”
“What the hell was he doing here? I thought this base was secure.”
The Base Commander pursed his lips for a moment and shifted his weight nervously. “Mister Reinhardt, the base is secure; however, we’d underestimated the containment measures needed in the kennel. I reviewed the security tape and it seems one of the experiments figured out how to open the latch to its stall. Once it escaped, the others managed to copy the first animal. And before anyone could stop them, the animals had dug a hole under the perimeter fence and encountered LaForce.”
Hans kicked a stone off the rocky escarpment and ground his teeth with frustration. “A dead Marine is not something we needed. Is this going to be a problem?”
“No. He was one of those disaffected types. No family, and it looks like he was out of a job. A wanderer who probably won’t have anyone searching for him. We’ll deal with his remains.”
“Have all the experiments been tracked down and decommissioned?”
“We tracked five of the animals through the signal coming off their PIT tags and disposed of them.” The colonel blew out a deep breath. “Unfortunately, none of my men were able to locate the sixth. It’s probably out of range, so I’ve sent out the drones. They’re programmed to run grids across the terrain, looking for the animal’s signal. We’ll find it.”
Hans glared at the colonel and silently wondered how such an incompetent ass came to be the Base Commander at a supposedly high-security location. “The last thing we need is one of our experiments wandering into civilians.”
“We’ll track the dog down—”
“That’s not a fucking dog, you moron!” Hans was suddenly furious. “It’s a specially bred nightmare with enough strength and intelligence to escape your so-called secure kennel and take out an armed ex-Marine who got in its way.”
The colonel’s gaze narrowed and his jaw tightened.
“Listen to me, both of our bosses have concluded that the operations are moving. We can’t risk our arrangement being exposed. Let’s face it, your government has already proven itself incapable of keeping things out of Wikileaks, so my neck and yours are on the line if any of this gets out.”
“Mister Reinhardt, I know exactly what’s at stake. You do not need to remind me. This is a black operation, and it’s staying that way. I’m working on the cleanup details, personally. We know the animal is wounded.” The colonel pointed toward the nearby slope. “We found evidence of its blood and are tracking it. Between the contractors on foot and the drones in the air, we’ll find it.”
Hans stared at the ground the officer had pointed to and frowned. “You damn well better be right.”
Frank O’Reilly poured a few inches of pea gravel into the fence-post hole he’d just dug. He glanced over his shoulder at Johnny, one of the ranch hands he’d recently hired.
“Make sure you get at least three inches of these rocks into the hole and tamp it down good, like this.” Frank tamped the rocks down with a large wooden pole. “We need a solid footing for the fence posts. Them cattle will rub up against just about anything, so these here posts need to be sturdy, you understand?”
“Yessir, Mister O’Reilly. And you need them posts eight feet apart so them sixteen-foot planks can span two openings, right?”
“That’s right. Make sure them posts are square with the ground and space them evenly.”
Frank handed Johnny a post-hole digger and smiled. The ranch hand had just turned eighteen and Frank couldn’t help but remember when Kathy was that age. Johnny had that same lively spirit and energy that reminded Frank of his baby girl when she’d graduated and took off for the world.
He patted Johnny on the shoulder and asked, “You got this?”
“Yessir, but if’n you don’t mind my asking, why all of a sudden you taking on help? You fixing to retire?”
Frank laughed and shook his head. “Johnny, I might be fifty-three, but I’ve still got quite a bit of life left in me. Just get the job done and you best be minding what I said about doing a quality job. I’m going to check all your work, so don’t take no shortcuts, you hear?”
“Yessir. Don’t have to worry about that.” Johnny hefted the post-hole digger and walked over to the next flagged spot Frank had marked for each post.
Frank turned away and nearly tripped on a dog that was sitting on its haunches right behind him. His arms wheeled back as he caught his balance, but the dog didn’t yelp or whimper.
“Damn it, where the heck did you come from?”
The chocolate lab remained sitting with its tongue lolling, panting.
A beautiful animal. Shiny coat, heavily-muscled body and obviously well fed. Not a stray.
He held out his hand. “Are you friendly?”
The dog stood, its tail became a blur.
It sniffed at Frank’s hand, then lowered its nose and sniffed at his boot and up along his jeans and sat back on his haunches. It licked its lips and whined. Its bright brown eyes stared up at him, glanced at his trousers, and then back up at his face. It whined again.
Frank tilted his head at the strange animal, not sure what it was trying to say, when he suddenly laughed. “I know why you’re so interested in me.”
He pulled from his pocket a folded-up piece of homemade beef jerky and tossed it gently to the dog.
The animal snatched it in midair and chewed contentedly on the fist-sized chunk of meat.
Frank waved at the dog and said, “Well, I best be off, pup. I’ll get a tongue lashing if I’m not home in time for supper.”
As Frank began walking toward the house, roughly half a mile away, he heard paws padding along behind him.
Purposefully ignoring the animal, Frank figured it would eventually get tired and go back to wherever it lived.
As he approached the modest white ranch-style house, Frank caught the whiff of beef roasting in the oven.
Megan stepped onto the porch and called, “Dinner is almost ready. Go get washed up.”
He climbed onto the wooden porch and gave Megan a peck on the lips. She shifted her gaze and pointed at the dog with a puzzled expression. “You made a friend?”
Frank glanced behind him at the lab, who sat at the edge of the porch steps with what could only be described as an amused expression.
“Well, he just showed up, and I made the mistake of giving him some of the beef jerky you made. I guess he liked it.”
Megan pushed her shoulder-length auburn hair behind her ears, knelt and patted the wooden deck of the porch. “Here boy, did you like the jerky?”
The dog bounded up the stairs and lay down in front of her, its belly up and its long tail sweeping back and forth over the wooden planks of the porch.
Megan giggled as she rubbed the dog’s belly.
“You’re such a good boy.” She looked up at Frank with that sheepish smile he knew so well. “Do you think anyone owns him?”
“No idea. He’s not wearing a collar or anything. But I thought after Daisy died, you swore—”
“Oh, you poor thing!” She exclaimed and pointed at the dog’s front right leg. “It looks like he got into a fight or something.”
The dog whimpered as she fussed over his injury.
“He’ll probably be fine—”
“No!” Megan stood and wiped her hands on her apron. “We’re going to take him to the vet and get him looked at.”
Frank wondered how much the vet might try to gouge him for. “He’s not even our dog.”
She turned and gave him that look she always did when her mind was set. “We’ll have the vet check him for one of them chips they put in dogs nowadays.”
Frank stared at his wife of thirty years. She was no taller than five-feet and built like a pixie. Anyone might think a strong breeze would knock her over, but when Mrs. O’Reilly set her mind to something, she was immovable.
He raised his hands in defeat. “But what about dinner?”
“Dinner will keep.” Megan walked into the house and motioned for the dog to follow, which it did. “I think we still have Daisy’s old bowls. I’ll see if this boy is thirsty while you go call the vet and tell him we’re on our way.”
Frank shook his head and listened to his wife’s fading voice as she began talking to the dog.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he wondered where the animal had come from.
One of the examination room doors opened and a blue-smocked veterinary assistant with a long black ponytail announced, “O’Reilly?”
Frank motioned toward the woman, “Right here.”
Her gaze shifted to the chocolate lab lying between Frank and Megan’s feet and smiled, “And what’s your name, gorgeous?”
“Jasper,” Megan announced suddenly, as if that had always been his name.
Frank gave her a look and worried that she might be getting attached. After all, the animal couldn’t have come out of thin air looking as healthy as he did. He belonged to someone.
“Well, let’s get Jasper weighed and see how he’s doing.”
“Jasper” stood the moment Megan hopped up off her chair and he followed her into the examination room.
Frank trailed after the two of them as the veterinary assistant held open the door. The blue uniform the girl wore resembled hospital scrubs and he noticed the name “Sherri” stenciled on it.
The door they’d come through swung closed as Sherri walked over to a large metal scale, pressed the “on” button and said, “Let’s see if we can coax Jasper to step onto the scale.”
Before Frank could bend over to nudge the dog in the right direction, Jasper walked toward the girl and stepped onto the metal platform.
“Hah, what a good boy!” Sherri glanced at the top of the scale and said, “Wow, 125.8 pounds. I’d never have guessed it.” She scribbled something on a sheet of paper and slid it into Jasper’s chart.
Frank asked, “Do you have one of those chip scanners?” Megan gave him a severe look, which he ignored. “You see, we recently found Jasper without a collar or anything else. We don’t know anyone who’s missing a lab in our area, but just in case, we wanted to do the right thing and see if he’d been chipped or not.”
“Oh, of course. Be right back.” Sherri left the exam room through another door and Megan began fervently petting the top of Jasper’s head. Moments later, Sherri reappeared with a handheld gray device that looked like a thick stick with a small loop on its end.
Megan grabbed Frank’s hand as the veterinary assistant approached Jasper.
Sherri turned the device on and it emitted a chirp. She passed the wand back and forth over Jasper’s back and explained, “Well, most vets inject the chip between the animal’s shoulders, and I’m not seeing anything there.”
Megan’s hand squeezed tighter on his.
“Let’s just make sure there isn’t one anywhere else,” she slowly moved the wand over Jasper’s hind quarters.
As Sherri approached Jasper’s right-front-leg, the dog whined and Megan soothingly said, “It’s okay, Jasper. She’s not going to hurt you.”
The veterinary assistant paused over the dirt-encrusted wound and made a sympathetic sound. “Poor baby, you’ve got an ouchie. Doctor Dew will make it all better.” She finished dragging the wand over Jasper and shook her head. “No chips that I can find.”
Frank sensed Megan’s smile without even having to look at his wife’s face. He sighed wistfully with the realization they had in effect just adopted a dog.
“Okay,” Frank grudgingly accepted the inevitable. “Let’s get Jasper a full workup, make sure he’s okay. As you saw, he’s got a wound that needs to get tended to.”
“Doctor Dew will be in to look at Jasper in a bit, but since it looks like Jasper is favoring his right front leg, we may need to take x-rays and sedate him for treating the wound. It’ll be at least $400.”
“Just fix him up,” Megan interjected. “We’ll pay whatever is necessary.”
Frank kissed the top of Megan’s head. There was no arguing with Mrs. O’Reilly over such things.
Frank draped his arm over the back of Megan’s chair as they spent nearly an hour in the waiting room.
Megan had been fidgeting the whole time, but when the vet returned without Jasper, Megan grabbed Frank’s arm and held it tightly.
Frank found himself staring at the veterinarian as the man spoke. The vet was huge, likely 275 pounds of solid muscle, a bodybuilder’s physique, yet it was oddly paired to a soft almost effeminate voice.
“Jasper will be coming out of sedation in about twenty minutes, but he’ll be fine. It looked like he must have gotten into a fight with something. Whatever it was had torn the skin pretty badly and the wound got infected. Luckily, the x-rays showed no breaks.” He pulled a clear plastic baggie from his lab coat and handed it to Frank.
Frank stared at the baggie and noticed it had a four-inch-long metal wire.
“However, it’s lucky that we did that x-ray, because I probably wouldn’t have seen this otherwise. I’ve no idea how that wire could have gotten there,” Doctor Dew showed his arm and pointed at a four-inch length above his wrist. “That wire managed to lodge itself between the skin and muscle just above the wound. Luckily, it came out without any problems. Jasper has stitches and is on antibiotics. I’m going to give the two of you some ointment that needs to go on the wound on a daily basis.”
Suddenly, Frank heard barking and one of the exam room doors burst open. Jasper came bounding out of the room, his gait a bit awkward, with one foot wrapped up like a mummy. He raced into Megan’s arms and turned rapidly with excitement as if he’d not expected to ever see her again.
The veterinarian laughed as Sherri apologized, “I’m sorry, but Jasper woke up way early and began frantically pawing at the door. I didn’t want him to pull any of his stitches. I guess he wanted his mommy.”
As Megan scratched the back of Jasper’s head, she asked, “So, Jasper is otherwise okay?”
The veterinarian nodded with a smile, “He’s now up to date with all his shots, but to be honest, that dog is probably a record setter. I checked his teeth and he’s still pretty young. Even though he’s the biggest and heaviest healthy lab I’ve ever seen, he might yet grow a bit. I’d guess he’s only a year, maybe eighteen months old.” He knelt next to Jasper and patted him on his shoulder. “It’s odd. He doesn’t look like he’d be any heavier than 75 pounds or so, which is still heavy for a lab. But this boy has got some dense musculature, it’s rather amazing.”
Frank groaned jokingly and said, “I’m just tired thinking about how much work it’ll be just to afford keeping him fed.”
Jasper suddenly walked away from them, grabbed a doggie blanket that was tucked under one of the waiting room chairs, and brought it back to Frank, laying it on his lap.
Megan smiled. “Aww, he heard you’re tired and brought you a blanket.”
Doctor Dew patted Jasper on his head and remarked, “You’re one smart dog.”
Jasper sat up a bit straighter and whuffed in agreement.
Frank watched as Megan fawned over the handsome dog and pressed his lips together. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right about the animal suddenly appearing in their life.