Authors: Linda Castillo
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural
I give her my best smile. “You, too.”
I glance to my right to see that Tomasetti is already in the Tahoe. Window down, he’s turned the vehicle around and is waiting for me. “We’ve got to go!”
I dash to the SUV, yank open the door, and climb inside. “Where is it?” I ask without preamble.
The tires spew gravel as he starts down the lane. “It just leveled Spring Mountain.”
That means it’s heading northeast.”
“Toward Layland. Then Clark.”
“And then Painters Mill.” I snatch up my phone and speed-dial Glock. “Where are you?”
“I just hit the Stutz place.”
“It’s headed this way.”
“Screaming like banshees.”
I think for a moment, aware that the engine is groaning, Tomasetti pushing the speedometer to seventy. The wind buffets the vehicle and yanks at the power lines overhead. “I wanted to get down to the mobile home park on the southeast side of town.”
“Too far away, Chief. Gotta let it go.”
“Shit.” Frustrated, I look out the window to see that the trees alongside the road are getting pounded by wind, leaves being torn from branches. It’s not raining, but visibility is down due to dust. “I’m going to hit a couple of farms out this way then head to the station.”
“See you there.”
Outside the vehicle, the wind goes suddenly calm. The leaves of the maple trees shimmer silver against the black sky. Small debris litters the road. Gravel and leaves and small branches with the leaves still attached. Humidity hangs in the air like a wet blanket. I don’t have my police radio with me, but Tomasetti has his tuned to the channel used by the Holmes County Sheriff’s Department.
“I don’t like the looks of this,” he says.
I point to a narrow gravel lane shrouded by trees. “Turn here.”
He hits the brakes and makes the turn—too fast—down the gravel lane and around the curve to the rear. I’m out of the vehicle before it comes to a complete stop. The first thing I notice are three Amish children playing with a big lumbering puppy in the side yard. The barn door is open, and I see the silhouette of Jonas Miller inside. I run toward the barn while Tomasetti turns the Tahoe around.
“Mr. Miller!” I’m breathless when I step into the doorway of the barn.
The Amish man drops the pitchfork he’d been using and runs out to meet me.
“Was der schinner is letz?”
What in the world is wrong?
“There’s a tornado on the way,” I tell him in Pennsylvania Dutch. “Get your family into the basement.
Lightning flashes overhead, so close both of us duck. The wind has picked up again, groaning as it whips around the eaves. Fat drops of rain splat against the gravel and the side of the barn.
He brings his hands together and calls out to the playing children.
“Shtoahm! Die Zeit fer in haus is nau!”
Storm! Time to go to the house now!
I run to the Tahoe, wrench open the door. “There’s another farm next door.”
“No time,” he says. “We have to get to the station.”
“Tomasetti, half the people in this town don’t know there’s a tornado on the way.”
“We’re not going to be any help to them if we’re dead.”
The tires spin and grab, and then we’re barreling down the lane. Too fast. Tires scrambling for traction in loose gravel. The trees on either side of us undulate like underwater plants caught in a white-water rapid. I glance to the west. A swirling black wall cloud lowers from the sky like a giant anvil about to crush everything in its path.
By the time we reach the end of the lane, the first hailstones smack hard against the windshield and bounce off the hood. Tomasetti hauls the wheel left. The Tahoe fishtails when he hits the accelerator, and then we’re flying down the road at double the speed limit.
I see his phone lying in the console and snatch it up. The tiny screen blinks on. He’s pulled up the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Web site with a live radar image of Painters Mill and vicinity. I see the flashing red of
at the bottom of the page and the magenta-colored mass of the storm moving across the map.
I set down the phone and look around. “It’s right on top of us.”
“Behind us. Close, though.”
I swivel, look through the back window, and I almost can’t believe my eyes. Rain slams down from a black sky, close but not yet upon us.
It’s chasing us,
I think. Beyond, I can just make out the outline of a darker cloud on the ground, impossibly wide, and a quiver of fear moves through me. I look at Tomasetti. “Our place okay?” I ask.
“I think so.”
“Tomasetti, this thing’s going to get that mobile home park.”
“Probably.” Looking tense, he frowns at me. “No time, Kate.”
I want to argue. Tell him that if we hurry, we can make it. I can use the bullhorn. It’ll only take a few minutes. But I know he’s right. We’re out of time.
Instead, I rap my fist against the dash. “
We enter the corporation limits of Painters Mill doing sixty. Outside the vehicle, the emergency sirens blare, a sound that invariably raises the hairs on the back of my neck. The town has a hushed feel, as if it’s holding its breath in anticipation of violence. Paper, trash, and leaves skitter along the sidewalk and street, like small animals running for cover. Some of the shopkeepers along Main Street took the time to close the awnings to protect their windows. Judging from the size of the wall cloud, I don’t think it will help.
The sky opens as we fly past the city building. Through the curtain of rain, I spot Councilman Stubblefield dashing up the steps two at a time, wrenching open the door. Then the deluge of rain blinds us. The wipers are already cranked on high, but they’re useless. It’s as if we’ve driven into a bottomless body of water and we’re on our way to the murky depths.
“There’s Lois’s Caddy.”
I can barely make out the silhouette of her Cadillac parked in its usual spot. “Police radio is probably going nuts.”
The SUV skids to a stop beside the Caddy. “Hopefully she’s in the basement by now.” Tomasetti jams the vehicle into Park, yanks out the key, and throws open the door.
Through the rain streaming down the windshield, I see a large plastic trash can tumble down the sidewalk. I shove open my door. The wind jerks it from my grip. Wind and rain slash my face with a ferocity that takes my breath. Grabbing the door, I slam it shut and sprint toward the station. The wind howls, harmonizing weirdly with the scream of the sirens. Hailstones hammer down hard enough to bruise skin. Tomasetti reaches the door first and ushers me inside.
I’m soaked to the skin, but I don’t feel the cold or wet. Lois stands at the dispatch station, headset askew, her expression frazzled. “Chief! All hell’s breaking loose!”
“You okay?” I ask.
“Scared shitless. Never seen it like this.”
On the desktop in front of her, the radio hisses and barks with activity. The switchboard rings incessantly. On the shelf behind her, a weather radio broadcasts the latest warning from the National Weather Service.
“You got radar up anywhere?” Tomasetti asks as he strides to the dispatch station.
Lois motions to the computer monitor on her desk. “Been watching it for fifteen minutes now, and I swear it’s the scariest damn storm I’ve ever seen.”
“There.” She indicates two Maglites on her desktop. “Batteries, too.”
I come up behind Tomasetti to look at the screen, and I almost can’t believe my eyes. A wide swath of magenta with the telltale “hook echo,” indicating rotation, hovers west of Painters Mill, moving ever closer with every blip of the heading flash.
“It’s almost on top of us,” I say.
“Worst of it’s to the south,” he counters.
“Lots of 911 calls coming in from that trailer park down there.” Lois thumbs a button on the switchboard, takes another call. “Yes, ma’am. We know. There’s a tornado on the ground. You need to take cover immediately in a storm shelter or your basement.” She pauses. “Then get into your bathtub and cover yourself with sofa cushions, a mattress, or blankets.” Pause. “Take your son with you. I know it’s scary. Get in the tub. Right now.” More incoming calls beep, but she shows no impatience.
I can’t stop thinking about that mobile home park. A lot of young families live out there. A lot of children. There are no basements. No storm shelters. No place to go.
A few years ago, I volunteered to help with the cleanup of Perrysburg, Ohio, which is about two hours northwest of Painters Mill, after an F2 tornado ripped through the township. There were no fatalities, but many serious injuries occurred, mostly to individuals who tried riding out the storm inside their mobile homes.
“Stay away from the windows,” Lois instructs the caller. “Put the older kids in the closet. Cover them with the mattress. Take the baby and get in the tub. Take care.”
Tomasetti looks away from the computer monitor. “Any way to forward 911 calls to the basement?”
“I can forward the switchboard to the extension down there.” Lois’s fingers fly over the buttons. “Done.”
“We need to take cover.” Tomasetti snaps his fingers at Lois. “Headset off. Now.” When she doesn’t comply fast enough, he eases it from her head and motions toward the hallway. “Let’s—”
The front window implodes. Glass flies inward. Lois yelps. Something large gets tangled in the blinds. The wind roars like a jet engine. Water soaks the floor instantly.
“Let’s go!” Tomasetti shouts, grabbing the weather radio.
Lois scrambles from her chair and dashes to the hall. I’m a few feet behind her with Tomasetti to my right. Around us the building shudders and creaks. Behind me I hear more glass breaking. The blinds flap wildly. We’re almost to the basement door, when we’re plunged into darkness. For an instant I’m blind, the meager light from outside unable to penetrate the shadows of the hall. Tomasetti flicks on a flashlight, shoves the other one into my hand. I turn it on, yank open the door. We descend the stairs, our feet muffled against the carpet.
The basement is a dank, dark room equipped with a single jail cell, a duty desk, and a couple of antiquated file cabinets. I shine my light on the desk, and Lois goes directly to the phone and snatches it up. “Dead,” she tells us.
I grapple for my cell and call Sheriff Mike Rasmussen on his personal number. He answers on the first ring.
“You guys okay up there?” I begin.
“Went to the south of us,” he says. “You?”
“Not sure yet. We’re in the basement. I think we’re going to take a direct hit.”
“You have access to radar?”
“There’s going to be damage, Kate. That damn thing’s half a mile wide and chewing up everything in its path.”
I tell him about the mobile home park. “I couldn’t get to them, Mike. If that park takes a direct hit, there are going to be casualties.”
“Pomerene and Wooster are on standby,” he tells me, referring to the two nearest hospitals. “Electric and gas companies are gearing up for power outages and gas leaks.” He sighs. “Soon as we’re in the clear, I’ll have my guys head down to that trailer park.”
“Thanks, Mike. We should be in the clear here in a few minutes.”
“Call if you need anything.”
I end the call and look at Tomasetti. He’s standing a few feet away, dividing his attention between me and his smartphone, watching the radar.
Above us, the ceiling rattles and groans. My ears pop, and I hear the ungodly roar of a train careening down rickety tracks. In the beam of my flashlight, dust motes fly, shaken loose by the vibration from above, and in the back of my mind I find myself hoping the building holds.
Tomasetti looks away from his phone and makes eye contact with me. I can tell by his expression the news isn’t good. “National Weather Service thinks it may have been an F3 that touched down to the west earlier.”
I recall the level of damage I’d seen in Perrysburg after that F2, and the knot of worry in my chest draws tight.
He crosses to me, his expression grim. “Do you have an emergency preparedness plan?” he asks.
“Of course we do.” Realizing I’m snapping at him when he’s just trying to help, I take a deep breath. “I should have thought of that.” I step away from him, work my phone from my pocket. “I’ll call the mayor.”
Auggie answers on the first ring. “Kate. Thank God. Where are you?”
“At the station.”
“Except for the damn maple tree in my kitchen, we’re just peachy.”
Auggie and his wife live in a nice neighborhood of historic homes and mature trees on the north side of town. “Auggie, is there much damage? Did the tornado get your neighborhood?”
“Aside from that tree, I don’t think so. But the wind was … unbelievable.”
“Look, I think we need to activate the emergency contingency plan.”
The mayor goes silent for a moment, as if trying to remember what it is. The truth of the matter is, since its inception two years ago, we’ve never had to use it.
“You’ve got a copy of the plan, right?” I ask.
“Uh, yes. Here in my file, I think.” But he doesn’t sound too sure of that, and I don’t think he knows what to do.
I have a copy of it here at the station, but Mayor Auggie is the official coordinator. “You probably need to notify the Red Cross first,” I tell him. “I suspect we’re going to have casualties. Gas leaks. Power outages. We’re going to have citizens in need of food and water and shelter.”
“Our designated shelter is the VFW hall,” I tell him. “You might give Rusty a call and have him get things ready. I think they’ve got some cots and blankets and bottled water over at the Lutheran Church.”
“Sure. Sure. I’ll call him.”
“Look, I’ve got to get out there. I’ll call my officers and get everyone out helping. Phones are down at the station. If you need something, I’ve got my cell.”
I disconnect and look at Tomasetti. “I don’t have time to drive back to the farm for my Explorer, so I’m going to have to commandeer your vehicle.” I’m only half kidding.