The Meteorologist

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Cover art copyright 2011 by Jeroen ten Berge

All rights reserved.

BOOKREPORTER

Blake Crouch is the most exciting new thriller writer I've read in years.

DAVID MORRELL

THE METEOROLOGIST is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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* * * * *

Summer of the year two thousand and six found him on the plains of west Kansas, veering onto the off-ramp at Exit 95. Hoxie (pop. 1200) lay sixteen miles due north of the interstate, the blaring inconsequence of the town only underscored by its station on the prairie. It was a black freckle on the roadmap, the sort of place one passes through in wonderment that people actually live there.

Peter secured permission from the owner of Hoxie’s only motel to squat in their parking lot for fifteen dollars a day. Paid for three in advance and emerged from the small office into an evening that had failed to release the preceding hours’ blistering store of heat. Across the empty parking lot, slats of sunlight glinted off the chrome hubcaps of his ’87 Winnebago Chalet. Peter considered the microwave inside and the TV dinners in the freezer, any of which he’d had twenty times before. It had been a long day behind the wheel—492 miles—and since the thought of eating dinner alone in the RV depressed the hell out of him, he started walking.

The downtown went for three blocks, and as he moved along the sidewalk, he kept glimpsing prairie—down alleys between the buildings, beyond the dirt streets lined with shabby houses. The sun struck all that grass in glancing blows, and the color changed as the wind blew across it. Green to gold, back to green again. Endless.

Where the business district stopped, he eased down onto a bench and stared sixty or seventy miles to the south at a supercell creeping silently across the plains like an atomic sunset.

Bad lighting. Jazz so easy-listening he couldn’t help but to think of that single video of soft-core he kept behind the respectable DVD collection in the RV—a bride and the best man trapped in an elevator the day of her wedding.

The waitress was wiping a table in the back, and she called out, “Sit wherever you like!”

He slid into a window booth as a trio of skateboarders rolled by, his eyes following their movement, then catching on the bulbous, powder-blue water tower that loomed behind the school. It felt good to be out of the RV. He stretched his legs under the table, let his heels rest on the cushion of the opposite seat.

Voices slipped through a cracked door in the rear wall of the restaurant, and he thought it might be a waiter calling out rapid-fire orders to the chef, but considering he was the only customer, that seemed unlikely.

He left the table and walked over to the door and nudged it open.

“B-eleven.”

“Hit.”

Peered into a private room half the size of the main dining room. A crowd of thirty or forty sat transfixed by two men on a makeshift stage, absorbed in a fierce game of Battleship.

The waitress came up behind him, ice rattling in the pitcher of water she held.

“It’s a very important match,” she whispered. “They’ve been having this tournament every Friday for the last few months. Tonight’s the championship.”

Peter chuckled. “Seems pretty intense in there. Money on the line?”

“Actually quite a lot.”

He returned to his table and let the waitress stumble through the longest description of a dinner special he’d ever endured—basically chicken-fried steak in two hundred words.

When she finished her spiel, he decided to splurge—ordered the special and a glass of Woodbridge from an unspecified vintage. The waitress disappeared into the kitchen and returned with his wine and a basket of steaming bread.

“You didn’t just move here, did you?” she asked.

“No.”

“Hmm.”

“What is it?” She’d told him her name when she first brought the menu, but he hadn’t really been paying attention. In fact, he hadn’t even looked at her until now.

He’d be fifty-three in October, if he lasted that long, and he put the waitress in the vicinity of forty-five—short and slender with graying blond hair and thin lips conservatively colored with coral lipstick that for some reason reminded him more of an accountant. She wore a white dress shirt and black jeans and her hair had been tugged back into a ponytail.

“We don’t get many folks, revise that,

Peter sipped his wine, the stem of the glass still warm from the dishwasher.

Notes of black cherry and dish detergent.

“No, I’ve been saving up for years to come to Hoxie. It’s the culmination of a lifelong dream.”

The waitress shot him a slanted stare. “Are you having fun with me?”

He smiled. “A little bit. I’m sorry.”

She shook her head and started her retreat toward the kitchen. “I can already tell,” she said, pointing her finger at him, “I’m going to have to keep an eye on you.”

Sudden applause issued from the banquet room, signifying what could only mean the end of one fleet admiral’s career. Peter leaned back and sipped his wine and basked in a tremor of contentment, old enough at last to know better than to analyze it, or embrace it longer than it meant to stay.

He walked back to the motel a little drunk and a lot tired. Friday night, 9:30 p.m., and Hoxie as dead as advertised—no sound but the hum of streetlamps and crickets. He climbed into the RV and sat for awhile in the dark on the foldout sofa. Staring through the window into the prairie, half-expecting to see some suggestion of residential glow out there, but not even a porchlight disrupted the gaping darkness. Around midnight, he got up and stepped into the closet-size john. Brushed the wine stain off his teeth and tried to avoid meeting the eyes in the tiny mirror. Windows to an empty house. Lobotomy eyes. He cracked a window and crawled into bed. The sound of the wind blowing across the prairie moved him like nothing had in days.

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