Chris hunched over his computer and watched the videotape of Trevor Kiefermann at the team party, his suspicions beginning to focus on the boy because of what Jordan had told him. Chris had called the office to see if the Kiefermanns or Skinny Lane Farm was registered with Homeland Security to purchase and store ammonium nitrate fertilizer, but he hadn’t gotten a call back yet. It always frustrated him that it took so long to get answers, not like in the movies with split-second replies, magical indexes, and seamlessly shared intel. In truth, federal law enforcement too often functioned like any other government bureaucracy. Except that lives were at stake.
Chris watched the video, and the scene changed to Trevor standing in front of the gun case, telling his teammates about the weapons. The boy seemed to have a working knowledge of firearms, which was consistent with the profile of a domestic terrorist, though not dispositive. And Trevor and his family had lied to school authorities about his true address. That wasn’t proof either, but it sent up red flags. It was likely that any bomber would be part of a conspiracy, even a family conspiracy like the Tsarnaevs in Boston and Bundys in Montana.
Chris eyed the screen, concerned. He didn’t know Trevor’s political leanings because the boy wasn’t in his Government class, but there was an array of antigovernment groups on ATF’s radar: neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, Nationalists, Christian Identity, Originalists, Constitutionalists, and militia groups. Plenty of them were in rural Pennsylvania, and Trevor and his family could belong to any one of them. Or be lone wolves.
Chris checked the clock, which read 2:03 A.M. He wasn’t tired, but jazzed. He closed out the computer file and grabbed his phones, keys, and windbreaker on the way out. He hurried from the apartment, left the townhouse, and hustled to the Jeep as he thumbed his phone to Google maps and plugged in Skinny Lane Farm Rocky Springs PA.
Fifteen minutes later, he was driving the deserted streets of Central Valley, then leaving town behind as he headed north. The outlet malls and chain restaurants gradually gave way to open farmland, and he rolled down the car window. He passed barns and farmhouses set far from the road, their windows black. There was no traffic and no ambient light. The moon hid behind a dense cloud cover, and only Chris’s high beams illuminated the road. Bugs dive-bombed in the jittery cones of light, and dark fields of new corn rustled in the chilly breeze.
He drove on and on, following the twists and turns, and the only sound was the coarse thrum of the Jeep’s engine, the mechanical voice of the GPS app, and outside the window, the constant chorus of crickets. Chris’s nostrils filled with the earthy scent of cow manure and the medicinal odor of chemical fertilizer, and he breathed deeply, letting his thoughts run free.
Scraps of memories floated into his consciousness, and they were times he didn’t want to remember, especially not on the job. He wasn’t a little boy anymore, a ten-year-old on a ramshackle farm in the middle of nowhere, the only foster son of the Walshes, chosen by the local DHS for their allegedly wholesome life.
You don’t listen, boy.
Chris kept going as he approached the sign, SKINNY LANE FARM, HORSES BOARDED, SELF-CARE, at the end of a dirt road. Up ahead, the road bottomed in a compound that included a small gray farmhouse, nestled among two white outbuildings, a chicken coop, and a large red barn. He turned off his headlights and steered onto a narrow dirt road between vast cornfields. Corn was the primary crop fertilized with ammonium nitrate, but ammonium nitrate wasn’t generally used by farmers on the East Coast, where humidity turned it to rock quickly, rendering it less spreadable. It wasn’t impossible that Trevor’s family could legitimately have ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and there was only one way to find out.
Chris traveled up the dirt road slowly, and when he was about a quarter of the way toward the house, he cut the engine. He got out of the car, closed the door, and stayed still for a moment, waiting for the bark of a dog. There was no sound. He ran down the road toward the house, turned into the cornfield so he wouldn’t be seen, and kept going. It was pitch-black, and he ran with his hands in front of him, got the pattern of the rows, then angled to the right toward the main house. Bugs flew into his face, and dust filled his nostrils. He reached the end of the corn rows and peeked out. The farmhouse was to the right, and the barn and the outbuildings were to the left. There was still no barking dog, so he hurried from the cornfield, and ran to the barn, where the smell was unmistakable. Horses.
You don’t listen, boy.
Chris used to love horses, one horse in particular, an old mare. The Walshes had been horse brokers, of the worse sort, and the mare didn’t even have a name. She was a brown quarterhorse from some third-rate racetrack, on her way to a kill pen, for horsemeat to Canada or other countries. He had named her Mary, for which the Walshes had teased him.
Chris put the thoughts out of his mind as he walked down the center aisle of the barn, four stalls on each side, and he could see the shadows of the horses, the graceful curve of their necks and their peaked ears wheeling in his direction. He hustled to the end of the barn, knowing that there would be a feed room and hayloft. He opened the door, slid out his phone, scrolled to the flashlight function, and cast it around. There was nothing untoward, only galvanized cans of feed, labeled with duct tape, Purina Senior, Flax Seed, Alfalfa Cubes.
The Walshes never had treats like alfalfa cubes, but he used to pull grass to feed to Mary, and she had loved it, following him everywhere. He would find excuses to stop his chores and groom her, pick her feet, or pull her mane, imagining she enjoyed the attention. It was when she developed a cut that started to fester that was the beginning of the end. But Chris refused to think about that now.
His flashlight found a stairwell in the corner, and he hurried up the stairs. He shined the flashlight around the neatly stacked bales of hay on both sides of the loft, next to a pile of extra feed. He went over to make sure nothing was hidden behind them, then hurried back downstairs and out the feed-room door. He glanced around, but there was no sound, except for the horses’ occasional shuffling in their stalls. There was another door across the way, presumably the tack room. He opened the door, closed it behind him, and shined his flashlight on saddles, grooming boxes, and blankets, then shelves of the typical supplies—Ventrolin, Corona hoof dressing, and a white jar of Swat, a salve for wounds.
On impulse, Chris walked over, picked up the Swat, and unscrewed the lid, releasing the pungent smell, and for a second felt lost in a reverie of emotion. It all came rushing back to him then, and he couldn’t stop it if he tried. His mare had cut herself on a nail on the fence, a cut that would’ve healed if he’d been able to treat her. It had been the height of summer, hot as hell, and the horseflies were biting the mare alive, laying eggs in the wound. All it would’ve taken to heal her was Swat, which he’d seen an ad for in one of the farm newspapers. The salve only cost nine dollars then, and it would’ve fixed everything.