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Authors: Matt Solomon

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BOOK: The Giant Smugglers
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He just got the back door open when the headlights of DJ's Hummer curved into the driveway. He rushed into his room, hit the lights, and hightailed it under the covers, clothes still on.

It wasn't long before, predictably, his mom peered around the door to check on him. Charlie's eyes were closed in his best imitation of deep sleep.

“Charlie.” She sighed, disappointed. Boxes were still all over the floor. He'd hear about it in the morning.

But it didn't matter. The moment he fist-bumped
an actual freaking giant
was burned into his brain.

His mom closed his door for the night.

Charlie slid off the bed and over to his bedroom window. From there, he could see the top of the warehouse. An approaching truck's lights climbed up the front of the building, illuminating the slit windows near the roofline.

That's when Charlie saw the giant staring at him. The big guy winked. And even though the boy was pretty sure the giant couldn't see him, Charlie winked back.

Now that he was over the initial shock of what he'd seen, questions raced in Charlie's mind like speeding cars in
Total Turbo
. What was a giant doing in Richland Center, of all places? Were there more out there like him? And who was the old man with the dog? The giant had called him Hank.

Charlie was going back in that warehouse first thing the next morning to find some answers.

 

3

The sun peeked over the vast gravel pit atop Quarry Hill as a piercing siren wailed. The surrounding hillsides were still green, but it was green on the run. In another month the trees would explode with fall colors before every trace of foliage fell and was lost until spring.

Below, at the base of the steep hill, an industrial white van sped toward the rock-strewn pit. The two scientists inside the vehicle ignored the dying siren.

A battered tin sign stood at the entrance to the quarry:
ALL VISITORS
MUST
CHECK IN AT OFFICE
.
“Head for the silo,” said Dr. Sean Fitzgibbons, ignoring the warning. It had been a long time since he had allowed rules to get in the way of what he wanted.

The doctor was about forty years old, with broad shoulders and a strong, arrogant chin. He double-checked their position using a GPS app on his phone, then leaned out his window to survey the quarry. It looked deserted, just as he'd hoped. “Let's go over this one more time. If we find our giant, we tag it and get out of here. No engagement. That's not our area of expertise, and we don't want to attract attention. The Stick will handle the rough stuff.”

The driver, Neil Barton, was younger than Fitzgibbons by ten years and heavier by at least thirty pounds. Squinting in the early morning sun through a pair of smudged, wire-rimmed glasses, Barton zipped the van right past a rusting office trailer, a weigh scale, and additional warning signs. “Why is he called the Stick, anyway?”

“He's the kind of man who solves problems one way. And talking isn't the way.”

Atop a blasted-away section of hillside across the quarry, the old man in the leather duster frowned. He watched the van snake around the gravel piles, crushing red plastic cups from the previous night's party. Powder stood at his heel. She followed the van's journey with wary eyes.

Reaching into his duster with a steady left hand, the old man pulled out a detonator. The dull metallic trim was scuffed and scratched. He rested his thumb on a lone toggle switch, mostly bronze because all the chrome had long since worn away. It sat in the middle of the controls beneath a stub antenna and red button.

He squinted to make out a green logo imprinted on the van's rear doors. Everyone in town knew the Accelerton symbol, a double helix that formed the stem of a leaf. The multinational conglomerate had an agribusiness arm that controlled nearly all of the local fertilizer and seed market.

The van continued toward the vine-covered silo. Powder let out a low growl. The old man's thumb twitched against the detonator's switch, but he pulled it back, spitting into the dirt and slipping the metal box back inside his waist pocket. He turned to his dog. Her black ears shot up.

“Powder,” he commanded. “Go say ‘Hi.'”

Powder didn't need to be told twice. She exploded from her perch on the hilltop, kicking up a cloud of dust as she darted toward the silo. The old man winced as he began the rocky descent toward the quarry's trailer office.

The van pulled up next to the silo. Barton grabbed a metal case off the seat and hurried out of the vehicle, his shirt already wet with anxious sweat. He peered up at the battered old building's dome.

Fitzgibbons swiped his phone to call up a grainy, black-and-white satellite photo. He compared it side by side with the actual silo, weather-beaten and leaning just a bit to the right. It was the same building, but there was a crucial difference: in the picture, four huge, oblong shapes pushed up the silo's dome. They looked like immense fingers.

“The place is sure big enough,” Barton said. He couldn't wait to see a giant up close for the first time but was a little frightened by the idea as well. He dropped the metal case on the ground, opened it, and reached for the custom rifle inside. It fired a tiny device that could be tracked anywhere in the world.

“Hold on,” commanded Fitzgibbons, peering over his shoulder back toward the office trailer. “Let me scan it before you bring that out into the open.” He closed the photo app with a finger swipe, then opened another labeled
WiVi
. He held up his phone as if he were shooting video of the silo. Using a satellite signal, the app penetrated the walls and allowed a blurry view of the structure's interior, like an ultrasound searching for an unborn baby. Fitzgibbons let loose a frustrated sigh. “There's nothing here. It's empty. We're late again.”

“You've got to be kidding me. That picture is from ten forty-two last night!” Barton slammed the case shut. “It was just here! Where could it go?”

“Whoever's helping the giants is shrewd.” Fitzgibbons drew in a breath of the country air, heavy with the earthy smell of manure. He took in the small, tilled field a short distance away. “We already knew they're moved all the time. We just need to find where.” He circled the silo's exterior. “Chin up. You were right about Richland Center; it appears to be on the giants' route, and that's something.”

“What will we tell Gourmand?”

“I'm not concerned about her right now.” Fitzgibbons pulled a small flashlight from his pocket. “I'm going to take a look inside the silo. And you,” he said, pointing to the field, “put that case away and grab some soil samples.”

“What good is dirt?” Barton grumbled. He returned the metallic case to the van and grabbed two soil collectors. Then he trod out to the field with the vials and pushed them into the black, fertile earth.

Ten yards away, Fitzgibbons inspected a small, ground-level discharge door at the base of the silo. He donned a pair of latex gloves, got down on his knees, and pushed his flashlight through the swinging door. After he squeezed through the opening, the steel door clanked shut behind him.

Fitzgibbons stood and brushed decades-old silage from his knees. He shined his light here and there, finding nothing but dust floating in the air. A careful sweep of the ground revealed four Spring Green city limit signs, dented and discarded. The signs were too big to have come in through the silage door.

His flashlight explored the walls, finding mossy growth on the mortar where water had seeped in between concrete blocks. Then he noticed an uneven spot at the edge of the silo's half-cylinder dome.

The block had been chipped and torn away. Fitzgibbons called up the aerial photo on his phone again; the damaged area corresponded with the location of the giant fingers in the picture. He searched along the walls for a ladder to get a better look. No luck. Not done yet, Fitzgibbons probed further with his flashlight.

The light settled on a small pile of chipped concrete that had fallen from the top edge of the silo. He got on his knees, sorting and sifting through the rubble before coming across a crescent-moon sliver of opaque, colorless material. The discovery measured about six inches long and perhaps three quarters of an inch at its widest point. Its lead edge was rounded, relatively smooth and uniform, while the opposite side was jagged in spots, as if it had been torn off. It appeared to Fitzgibbons that he had found a very large piece of fingernail. He pumped his fist, an old gesture of triumph from his track-and-field days. Then he removed tweezers from a kit in his jacket, gripped the discovery, and dropped it into a sample bag.

The swinging door made a rusty squeak, and Fitzgibbons spun around. The beam of his flashlight met the hostile eyes of a German shepherd. The beast snarled, exposing a mouthful of sharp teeth. A deep, throaty growl swirled in the silo as she advanced.

Fitzgibbons put the sample ahead of his own safety, securing the bag in his jacket before retreating to his left. The menacing dog closed the distance between the two of them. He put his back to the silo wall and slid along, block by block, toward the door.

When he arrived, Fitzgibbons couldn't bring himself to get down on the ground to scuttle through the door. He'd be defenseless. But then reason stepped in, and he chided himself. The dog hadn't attacked because she wasn't supposed to. Fitzgibbons was relieved—he was being herded. It was time to find the dog's master.

“Have it your way,” he said, dropping to his knees and passing through the opening. As he did, he felt the German shepherd clack her teeth at his heels for good measure.

Outside, his eyes strained against the bright September morning before he saw Barton cowering inside the van. Evidently, the dog had done her job with him as well. Fitzgibbons was calm and deliberate as he made his way to the vehicle, despite the aggressive snout prodding at his ankles. When Fitzgibbons reached the van and opened the passenger door, the animal barked twice and bolted past him inside.

Barton panicked, slamming up hard against the driver's-side door. But the dog didn't attack. She settled between the two front seats and narrowed her eyes at Barton, who fumbled for the door handle.

“I'm certain if that dog meant you harm, she would have torn your leg off by now,” Fitzgibbons said, though the words did little to reassure his partner. The scientist checked the inside pocket of his jacket to make sure the sample he'd collected remained secure then hoisted himself up into the passenger seat. With an emphatic slam of the door, he trapped the dog inside the van. “Let's go.”

Barton's hand shook as he found the ignition key and turned it. He pulled away from the silo, his eyes bouncing from the road to the dog, which was poking a suspicious snout into his right leg. When the van hit a bump and lurched, the dog gave a sharp bark. Barton recoiled, jerking his foot off the accelerator.

“Keep your foot steady on the gas. Head back the way we came.”

Barton retraced the route he had taken through the quarry. As the van turned past the office trailer, an old man in a duster jacket strode into its path. He held up his hand for the van to stop, glaring into the cab through the dusty windshield. The dog recognized her master, and her tail smacked Barton's thigh with a steady
thump-thump-thump
.

Barton's fingers twitched on the steering wheel. “Should I go around him?”

“This is where the dog gets off,” said Fitzgibbons. “Let's have a word.”

Barton brought the van to a stop. The old man approached the passenger side and slid open the side cargo door.

“Powder, out!”

The dog bounded through the opening. The old man slammed the door shut and rapped the passenger window twice. Fitzgibbons slid it down. “I see Powder introduced herself,” said the silver-haired man.

“Beautiful dog,” said Fitzgibbons, his follow-up smile closed and brief.

The old man fumed. “This is private property. What's your business?”

“I'm Dr. Sean Fitzgibbons and this is my associate Mr. Barton.” Fitzgibbons extended a firm hand. The old man took it, returning the show of strength.

Barton offered an anxious smile and a small wave. “How's it going?”

“Fitzgibbons,” said the old man. “Should I know that name from somewhere?”

“Perhaps you remember him from the sprinting trials a few Olympics ago?” offered Barton.

“No, that's not it,” said the old man, unimpressed.

“We're with Accelerton,” Fitzgibbons said, waving off his partner. “We're out doing routine sweeps to determine if there's been any spread of our seed from one farm to another. It happens all the time, you know.”

“Your genetically modified seed?”

“Yes.”

“You won't find any of your stuff back there. That land's organic.”

“Yes,” said Dr. Fitzgibbons, wrinkling his nose. “I smelled the manure.”

“Funny,” returned the old man. “I didn't smell any until now.” He made no effort to disguise his sarcasm.

“Our apologies, Mr.… I'm sorry. I didn't get your name?”

“Hank Pulvermacher. Didn't you hear the warning siren? That ridge you drove under is rigged to blow. You're damned lucky I saw you when I did.”

“Mr. Pulvermacher, we're sorry to start your day this way. We didn't hear any siren. But now that we have our soil samples…” Fitzgibbons reached between the seats and held up the containers Barton had collected back at the farm.

Hank squinted at the vials, dubious. “You can tell what's what from that little bit of dirt?”

“Your dog persuaded us to stop our canvass. Powder, is it?”

A wry grin crossed Hank's face, signaling acceptance of a stalemate. “You want to dig around back there, call the main office. Otherwise, you're trespassing. That's how it is, so get on your way.” He gave the side of the van a smack to hurry it along.

BOOK: The Giant Smugglers
6.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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