An F-18 Navy fighter careens out of the blue sky above the Mojave desert. A TV cameraman who grew up in a small town just miles away can see what is going to happen next. Frantically, Wes Stewart races to the downed jet and tries to save the pilot's life. When the plane explodes, Wes escapes without harm--and plunges into a murderous conspiracy.
It's been fifteen years since Wes has been back to the desolate land of his childhood. Now he finds himself up against the U.S. military, the local police, and someone who is tracking his every move. In the moments he spent with the dying pilot, Wes discovered something that could get him killed. But while he tries to untangle a web of lies and secrets surrounding the crash, another danger is stalking him. And this one he will never see coming.
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January 31, 2012
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Excerpt from No Return by Brett Battles
A distant boom echoed faintly across the hills.
Wes Stewart peered at the sky. He recognized the sound, but it was one he hadn't heard in years.
"What the hell was that?" Danny DeLeon asked.
He was holding the second camera.
Danny still looked confused, so Wes added, "You know, when a jet breaks the sound barrier."
Wes squinted toward the western horizon, then raised his arm and pointed. "There. See him?"
Danny shaded his eyes. "I don't see anything."
"Flying south, just a little bit above the mountains." Wes's finger tracked the movement of the jet.
"No, I don't. . . . Wait. It's like a white dot."
Wes nodded. "Yep."
"That thing's moving fast."
"It's a fighter jet, Danny. That's what they do."
While it was novel to Danny, for Wes it was a reminder of a time when he would have barely noticed a sky full of jets.
"You guys set?" Dione Li, their producer/director, asked from behind them. She was leading a group of three others over to the base of the rock formation. The look on her face was pure Dione: ten percent annoyed, fifteen percent pissed, and one hundred percent determined. "We got a lot to do today, and I don't want to mess around."
"Same speech, different city," Danny said through the side of his mouth.
"I'm sweating," Monroe Banks announced, more an accusation than a statement.
"On it," Anna Mendes called out. She whipped out a couple of Kleenex from the makeup utility belt around her waist and dabbed at a line of perspiration that had formed on Monroe's forehead.
"Is it going to be this hot every day?" Monroe whined as she fanned herself with her hand.
Wes rolled his eyes. The last he'd checked, the temperature had been hovering around ninety-�two degrees, not so bad for mid-�day in the high Mojave Desert. Of course, that was because it was October--�not August, or July, or September, or June, or even May, when it seldom dipped below one hundred while the sun was out.
Donning her faux, producer-�mode smile, Dione stepped over to the spot she'd picked out earlier, then turned back to the others. "So, Monroe, we'll have you stand right here for the intro shot. Behind you we'll see the empty desert, then, as you finish, look to your right and follow the rock up. Wes will mimic your movement with the camera. Danny, I want you to get a wide shot from down the slope. Try to get as many of the formations--�"
"Pinnacles," Wes corrected her.
"As many pinnacles," Dione said, smirking, "as you can into the frame."
Danny gave her a nod. "Will do." He shuffle-�stepped down the small slope into position.
Their location was the Trona Pinnacles, a group of tufa deposits that stretched in an east-�west line across the dry bed of Searles Lake. It was a few hours north of Los Angeles, and twenty miles from Wes's hometown of Ridgecrest, California. The Pinnacles had been formed by an ancient sea, and the best way Wes had ever heard them described was as a bunch of giant, caveless stalagmites.
Alison Pringle, the tallest member of the crew, slipped behind Wes. "Where do you want me so I'm not in your way?" she asked.
Wes pointed at a spot a few feet behind his position. "There should be good."
She touched his arm just below his shoulder. "Thanks." She smiled, then moved off.
While Monroe moved into position, Dione glanced at Alison. "Are we good with sound?"
"Monroe, can you give me a level?" Alison wore a pair of headphones that allowed her to monitor both Monroe's voice and any ambient noises the host's mic might pick up.
"One. Two. Three."
"We're fine," Alison said.
"Four," Monroe finished.
Dione turned her attention to Wes. "Set?"
She leaned toward him, and in a low voice asked, "You all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"You're awfully quiet."
Wes frowned. "No I'm not."
"Whatever you want to think, but, yeah, you are." She did a quick check of the rest of the crew, then said, "All right, Monroe. Whenever you're ready."
Monroe closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them again, an entirely different person emerged. The less-�than-�pleasant Monroe the crew had been subjected to since they'd arrived in Ridgecrest the night before had been replaced by the bright, friendly version the 1.3 million viewers of Close to Home were used to seeing.
"All right," Dione said. "Here we go. And . . . Monroe."
Monroe gave it a beat, then, "A vast nothingness. Brown for as far as the eye can see. A wasteland. A place no one would willingly visit, right?" Another beat. "If you believed that, then you'd be missing out on some of the most interesting and beautiful parts of the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles. Hi, I'm Monroe Banks, and welcome to another episode of Close to--�"
"Hold on," Alison called out.
Dione groaned. "Seriously? She almost had it in one take."