John watched the giant rotors twisting lazily in the breeze. There was something peaceful about being out on the wind farm, away from everyone else. There was work to be done, of course; there was always work to be done. Old Mister Gutman had called him out to have a look at his pickup again. Mister Gutman didn't treat his trucks kindly, taking them into all kinds of wilderness. He could afford to, and who would stop him, after all? John wondered if he hunted up there. He knew Mister Gutman owned a carbine because Sam Stalton had sold it to him. Sam was the last gunsmith this side of the city and the Stalton house was renowned for its handcrafted weapons. John liked to work at Stalton Farm. Sam was a kindly soul, and liberal with his wife's chilled iced tea.
Not Mister Gutman. If Misses Gutman had ever made a pitcher of iced tea, it was when she was still a child. Everyone in town said the Gutmans'd be better off moving back to the city but here they stayed, year after year. They'd won the contract to build up the wind farm way back in the hazy days of the town's first legal battles with city officials and they'd changed as the money rolled in from on high. "Yes," Mister Gutman liked to say, "We don't like those city folk, but we'll surely take their money!" Then he would laugh and clap you on the back and probably offer a cheroot or a stogie to take the edge off of his wealth.
Damn, that man was worth a lot of money. Most people in town couldn't afford real hydrogen engines. Electrics, electrics, everywhere you looked. Not Mister Gutman. Of course, he'd torn the fuel line or some such nonsense, probably driving it up a mountain side. When John peered into the darkened barn the Gutmans used as a garage he could see the dangerously explosive super-cooled hydrogen dripping from the undercarriage.
It was damaged, but it was a beautiful car. General Motors from beyond the city, somewhere out in the mid-west. It hulked in the center of the wide concrete floor like a bull in a barn of old. It was matte black save for the blue and white square on its nose that proclaimed GM in triumphant block letters. John laughed and shook his head--this was the only GM car anyone in the town had ever seen or was ever like to see. He wondered that Mister Gutman hadn't purchased an Airtran yet but he supposed that was just a matter of time.
John Harper lowered his tool case near the truck and went fishing for his wireless wrench. Electrics would open up for anyone lickety-split, spilling their humming little guts for a technician who so much as popped her hood. Hydrogen cars and Airtrans weren't so easily fussed with. Even with a prybar, you'd never be able to get the hood open without setting off so many alarms that the GM anti-theft force would be on top of you like a fly on honey within the hour. He flicked through the settings on the wrench and found his GM certification right where he left it, in alphabetical order. John waved the duraplastic rod with a flourish, pressing on the little touch-screen at its base, and nodded in satisfaction as the hood slowly rolled up.
He was an arm-length deep into the vehicle when he jerked his head up to the sound of some strange noise. THUMP! His skull cracked painfully on the elevated hood of the truck. His hands were covered in engine grease, so he refrained from touching his hair, but rather wiped them on the front of his work coveralls. Streaks of oil beaded on the cloth where his fingers had touched it. He glanced around the garage; Two of Mister Gutman's four cars were present, meaning he and the misses where both probably out. They didn't do much together. Sam Stalton said they were too fat to share a bed, which always brought laughs from the crowd down at the diner.
John heard the noise a second time. It was a strange burbling sound that bubbled up from somewhere behind the barn. Bur-bur-bur-BAGAW! It took a minute for him to realize what it reminded him of. Sometimes, on the radio stations that came in from the city, you could hear commercials. They were no use out here since everyone already knew everyone else and besides there was only one place to eat in a hundred miles anyway. No, the noise sounded like those Soysynth commercials, the ones where they advertised their almost-chicken.
Carefully, John placed his tools back in his box. It was probably just an old toy, he thought to himself, and then: but the Gutmans don't have any children. A thrill of fear surged through his body. What if it wasn't? He trotted out behind the barn to try to find the source of the clucking. It had stopped, of course, by the time he got outside. There was the Gutman house with its long porch and gabled roofs, there the huge toolshed, and over there the pump and hydrogen condenser across the yard.
John stuck his hands in his pockets. Maybe he'd just thought it up. Sometimes, especially when he was alone, he found he could mistakes sounds in his head for sounds in the world. Stupid mistake, really, and as soon as you said something or scuffed your feet or heard any other noise whatsoever it became apparent that the sound you thought you heard was just a trick of the brain. He sighed and slouched back towards the barn. Of course the Gutmans didn't have a live chicken on their property. That would be... well, criminal.
He was halfway through the door when he heard it again. This was no mental apparition. It was coming from the toolshed.
Beads of sweat ran down John's back, pooling at the base of his work coveralls. He held a cup of lukewarm coffee limply in one hand and stared off into a chrome corner of the Main Street Diner. Edith was bustling nearby, cleaning up the counter with a little cloth napkin and righting sugar dispensers. John sipped at the synthetic coffee without tasting it. He could feel the stuff slosh over his teeth, across his gums and tongue and down into the dark recess of his gullet.
His first thought had been to leave and pretend it had never happened. He could tell Mister Gutman that something came up and... no, that would never work. Greg Gutman had cameras all over that damn wind farm and he'd know John was lying as sure as Sunday. Still, he couldn't bear to stay there so he had hopped back into his own low-power Tesla pickup and driven back to town.
The Main Street Diner made one concession to acknowledge the existence of the city, and that was the slender screen TV that was always broadcasting news. Nothing ever happened in Black Springs and besides which if something did you'd find out soon enough just by talking to your neighbors. But the wider world, now, that needed cameras and crews and news anchors and reporters to get the word out. So there was a nice distraction ready-made, jabbering about who-knows-what nonsense that city folk cared about. It helped to drown out his own thoughts, anyway, or prevent him from having any which was really the same thing.
Edith finally made her way over to him and asked, "Anything more I can getchya, hun?"
"No thanks," he said, trying not to sound brusque. As she turned he looked up and changed his mind: "Well, maybe. Got any lemon meringue pie?"
"We sure do, hun." Edith called everyone 'hun' or 'toots' or 'babe.' John found it endearing or irritating in turns. Today it grated on his nerves. "We just got all the ingredients in week before last. Everything's nice and fresh."
John smiled thinly at her, trying to restrain the urge to bolt. He tapped his left hand against the countertop drumming, drumming, drumming. What the hell was he going to do?
Before Edith could return with his slice of lemon meringue pie, old Sam Stalton sauntered into the place. He was a welcome face and a good friend, so John felt a surge of relief immediately followed by a puckering tension: how would he tell Sam? What could he even say that wouldn't give away Greg Gutman's guilt?
Sam, seeing him, waved and came to sit down next to him at the countertop. He pressed Edith for coffee and she bustled away again, still no pie, before he turned to John. "Mister Harper!" he exclaimed in a voice of false surprise. "Why, you do look awful!"
John clinked his coffee cup down into its saucer to rest amongst the little pond of brown synthcoffee. "Sam," he said shakily, "If someone used one of your guns to go hunting, what would you think of it?"
Sam chuckled. He had dark, intelligent eyes and big thick whiskers that had gone gray. He wore a flannel patterned cap and a faded blue button down shirt. He had the sort of knowing face that people could easily turn to for advice. "Heck, Johnny," he said, "I don't care what they do with 'em once they buy 'em."
"I'm serious, Sam," John said. He could feel the nerves building. What would Mister Gutman do if he knew that John knew? "If you knew, for sure, that someone went out into the wild and shot himself some deer, what would you do?"
It seemed Sam could sense the urgency in John's tone as his smile faded and he shrugged. "Well, shit, John, I do know for sure that some people use my guns for huntin'. What other use do they got? It's not my fault if they wanna go breakin' the law... and, if you ask me, it's a foolish law anyhow. We don't have to worry about that sort of thing unless there's a city man in town and the last time one came through here was nearly two years ago."
John ground his teeth. He wasn't getting through. He leaned in and said softly, "Greg Gutman's keeping livestock."
Sam leaned back and let out a low whistle. "No kiddin'?" he asked. John shook his head 'no.' "Well, that's a different story. How'd you ah... how'd you come to find that out?"
"I was there to repair his truck when I heard something, Sam. I went to go see what it was and, well..." John trailed off, afraid to speak too publicly.
Sam sighed. "You'da done better off pretending you didn't hear nothin'. You know old Gutman's got that place buttoned up tighter'n a trustee's asshole with cameras and sniffers. I don't feel like ya got much choice: you'd best get to the sheriff before he finds out whatchya know."
John hung his head. The sheriff. Somehow, he knew it would come to this.
Head on over to part two!