On a quiet afternoon in the park, four-year-old Joey plays in the sandbox, when a stranger approaches looking for his puppy. While Joey's mom, Crystal, talks on her cell phone, the stranger convinces the child to help search. By the time Crystal turns around, her son has disappeared. Yet her reaction is odd, not what one would expect from a distraught mother. Is Crystal somehow involved in her son's abduction?
Meanwhile, on a ranch outside Houston, Texas Ranger Sarah Armstrong assesses a symbol left on the hide of a slaughtered longhorn, a figure that dates back to a forgotten era of sugarcane plantations and slavery. Soon other prizewinning bulls are butchered on the outskirts of the city, each bearing a similar drawing. The investigations converge at the same time a catastrophic hurricane looms in the Gulf. Finally, as dangerous winds and torrential rains pummel the city, Sarah is forced to risk her life to save Joey.
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September 30, 2010
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Excerpt from The Killing Storm by Kathryn Casey
"Have you seen my puppy?" the man asked. They were in the park, a span of thick green with black-trunked oaks and soaring, spindly pines nestled among sprawling subdivisions northwest of Houston.
Caught up in an imaginary world, a sandbox desert of hand-shaped hills and roundabout roads, the boy pressed down hard on a bright yellow-and-red plastic dump truck, pushing it up a make-believe ramp, then pulling it down again. All the while, his soft pink lips vibrated, brrrrrrrrrr, mimicking an engine.
"Did you see my puppy?" the man asked again, louder. The boy glanced up, startled, but then smiled at the man. When he saw the frown on the man's face, the boy thought that the man looked troubled.
"No," the boy said, shaking his head, his clear blue eyes wide with worry. "Is your puppy lost?"
The man's brow furrowed and his lips pinched, as if he were ready to cry. The puppy must be lost, the boy thought, and then the man confirmed it. "He ran away," he said. "My little puppy ran away. Will you help me find him?"
A worried look on his face, the boy swiveled toward his right and saw his momma sitting on a picnic bench, talking on her cell phone and staring off into the pond, where the ducks with the green heads and the snow-white geese milled about, plucking at the water. It was a school day, and the park was deserted except for the boy and his mother and the man who'd lost his puppy. The boy thought about the puppy and wondered where it might be. I should tell Momma that I'm helping the man, he decided. She's upset about the big storm, the one they keep talking about on television. "Just a minute," he said, turning to run to his mother.
Before the boy could leave, the man reached out and gently touched the child's shoulder. "Don't go!" he pleaded. "You've heard about the hurricane. I need to find my dog before the bad weather comes. Please help me. He's not far away. It won't take long."
As the boy dropped his gaze to the sand, deep in thought, the man glanced at the woman and smiled. The boy's mother remained on her cell phone, and it appeared she hadn't even looked their way. "Your mommy is busy," the man said, wearing his best you-can-trust-me expression. "I know her, and I know she likes it when you help people. She'd want you to help me."
Concentrating on the face of the man who towered over him, the boy wondered if the man looked familiar. Maybe. His momma knew a lot of people. The man had a nice smile, the kind adults have when they're worried but they want to be nice anyway, to not look upset. The boy's momma did that, tried to look like everything was okay when the boy knew it wasn't, like the day his poppa moved out. That afternoon, the little boy heard loud arguing, his momma screaming at his poppa, telling him that he'd be sorry if he left them.
After his father slammed the apartment door, the boy rushed to his mother, frightened. "It's okay," she said. The boy looked up as his mother reassured him with a tightly drawn smile. "We'll be fine."
Again, the boy glanced at his mother and saw she still talked on the telephone and gazed out at the water. Every day his momma brought the boy to the park to play, unless it rained. On those days, they stayed inside their small apartment, and she watched television while he played with his toys on the stained tan carpet. Once in a while, when she was in a happy mood, they played games, Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders.
"I need you to help me find my puppy," the man insisted, reclaiming the child's attention. "It'll only take a minute. I bet my puppy will come if you call him."
The possibility that the puppy would listen to him caught the boy's interest. "Your puppy will come for me?" he asked, excited by the prospect. "If I call him?"
"I bet he will," the man said, his hands palms up as if weighing the likelihood. "He's a good puppy, but sometimes we play this game. Like playing hide-and-seek. He hides, and I have to find him. I like games. Do you like games?"
The boy thought again about Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, and this time hide-and-seek. "I like games," he said. "I like games a lot!"
"You look like the kind of boy who would," the man said, with not only a smile, but a soft chuckle. "I play games a lot. All kinds of games."
"With your puppy?" the boy asked.
"Yes, with my puppy, and sometimes with little boys and girls," the man said. "It's my favorite thing to do."
The boy looked at his momma a third time. She was still talking on the phone. She looked serious. Maybe it was about the storm. Or maybe she was talking to his poppa. The boy wondered sometimes where his poppa lived now that he didn't live with the boy and his momma. Considering what he should do, the boy gazed up at the man again, stared at the leash in his hand, and then asked, "What's his name?"
"His name?" the man replied.
"Your puppy's name," the boy said.
"Buddy," the man said. "My puppy's name is Buddy."
The boy laughed. "That's a silly name."
"Why is that silly?"
The boy thought about it and wasn't sure. "I don't know," he said. "It just is."
The chains squeaked wearily as the humid, hot breeze picked up, and the eight swings with their thick brown leather seats swayed lazily back and forth, back and forth. How strange that the sky was so blue and the day so tranquil when a violent storm circled in the Gulf. Sometimes the boy liked to swing. His momma pushed him so high that he thought he should be able to stretch out his legs and punch his feet through a cloud.
"And your name is Joey," the man said.
"I'm Joey!" the boy said, then felt confused. "How did you know my name?"
"I told you, I know your mommy," the man said with an indifferent shrug.
Joey Warner thought about that. The man knew his name, and he didn't seem like a stranger. He was a nice man with a nice smile. And the man was right, Joey thought. His momma liked it when Joey helped, like picking up his toys or cleaning his room. And he was supposed to be respectful of adults. His momma said that, too.
"Okay," Joey said, nodding. Then he cried out, "Buddy! . . . Buddy!"
Above the boy, tree branches rustled and the still green leaves shimmered, showing off their silver underneath. Joey looked over at his momma and thought again that she had to be talking to his poppa, because that's the way they talked now, angry with loud voices. Although he couldn't hear her, he knew his momma was upset.
"I saw my puppy over there," the man said, pointing near a stand of trees bordering the parking lot. "That's where Buddy ran off."
"Oh," Joey said. Then that's where the puppy must be, he thought. With the man following, Joey ran fast toward the parking lot, shouting, "Buddy! . . . Buddy! Come, Buddy!"
The man glanced back toward the picnic table, wondering if the boy's mother would finally look in their direction. But even with the boy shouting, she never turned around, instead staring out at the shimmering water. "That's right, Joey. Let's play the game," the man murmured. "Call the puppy. Come with me. It's all part of the game. Someone hides, and someone seeks."