The only thing Lana James disliked more than Mondays was spending one in the country. Visiting the father of a childhood friend meant that exact combination. He had called her early that morning, another pet peeve of Lana’s, and asked for a favor. He wouldn’t tell her what he wanted over the phone. So, here she was in the living room of the old farmhouse trying not to look as sad as the faded wallpaper. 

“Please Lana,” Jeff, her friend’s father, was saying, “you cared about her as much as I did.” The aging man’s grey eyes pleaded with her, but even their sadness couldn’t hide the gleam that made him known as a few eggs short of a dozen. He held a pack of photos. “I’m sure they’re some sort of message. I think you’re the only one clever enough to figure them out.”

Lana took a steadying breath. You mean I’m the only one who would humor you, she thought. “I don’t know,” she said, letting her gaze wander from him. But then her eyes came to rest on a picture on the mantle. The frame was a gift from her to his missing daughter. The old image of Emily smiled softly at her through a halo of blond curls. 

Lana pursed her lips, then uncrossed her arms to take the photos from the man.

“Thank you,” he said smiling. 

“Okay, don’t get too excited. I’ll bring them to Juicy. Maybe his program can find a pattern. But I’m not promising anything.”

She shook her head, but then her face softened. She put a hand on the gray-haired man’s shoulder. “Listen, Uncle Jeff, you can call me sometime without having a case to investigate. Do you have everything you need here? You look kinda thin.”

“I’m fine. I can grow and make all I need,” he said.

“Sure, but I can stop by the store--”

“The store! Ha. What are you trying to do? Kill me? You know what they put in that stuff? Half the food comes from Latin Americans in cahoots with the Russians, you know. They’re going to take over this country one day and we’ll all be too fat, sick and stupid to fight back.”

“Ok, as long as you’re fed,” she said before he could go on.

Lana gave him a hug and headed out. She tripped over the welcome mat while she tried to put the photos in her bag.

Jeff laughed, “Super Klutz strikes again! Nice to see you haven’t changed.”

“Ha, ha,” she muttered. She would never live down the nickname, but she tried not to let it bother her too much. Sometimes her clumsiness even worked to her advantage as a private investigator, like a really lame superpower. Now that she was frustrated, she couldn’t get the photos into her bag. To perfect the miserable Monday, it had started to rain. 

“Dang it,” she said, holding her bag over her head with her free hand preparing to run.

“When are you going to look at the photos?” Jeff asked just before she could take off. 

“I’ll drop them off today,” she said, jogging to her car, where fortunately she had a raincoat. Unfortunately, she hadn’t calculated how to unlock the car door while holding her bag over her head and a pack of photos in her other hand. “Dang it,” she muttered again when she dropped her keys.

“Thanks baby girl,” Jeff shouted from the porch. “It may save us from the Germans.”

  Lana rolled her eyes and finally managed to open the car door. The sky had gone dark. Jeff went back inside as Lana turned on the engine. She tossed the package of photos on the passenger seat, and then jerked the car in reverse.  Half the photos slid to the floor, as she turned the car around. She put the car in park again. 

“Nice,” she muttered and leaned over to pick up the photos. She heard thunder, and then lightning lit up the car for a moment. “Oh, please hit me,” she said to the lightning. “That would be the icing on this dirt cake.” There was another sudden clap of thunder and the lightning struck closer this time. 

“Just kidding,” she said. As the lightning lit up the car, the photos she was setting back on the seat caught her attention for a moment. She flipped through them quickly. They were aerial shots of… crop circles. Of all the crazy things, Lana began a thought that she pushed away as she started driving. But she glanced back at the photos. There was something about them that bothered her. Emily’s dad was nuts, but Lana could see why he was so insistent. She looked at the photos again. She drove with one hand on the wheel and turned one of the photos on its side. The fields almost looked like a maze… or a map?  The car swerved frightening her as she went through a deep muddy hole. She put both hands back on the wheel and headed to town. 

Despite the rain Lana made great time to Juicy’s toy shop, as she had nicknamed his shadowy office in the center of town. She popped in a stick of gum before she knocked on the door with the special pattern that let him know it was her. She hoped the fruity flavor would be effective in combating the odor of stale pizza, coffee and a unique blend she called “geek lair odor.” The door opened automatically, and Lana glanced at it curiously as she entered and walked through the small room to his desk. 

“That’s new,” she said pointing toward the door as he spun around to face her.

“You like it? It seems a waste of my precious energy to get the door when I could be focusing on my next masterpiece,” he said leaning back mysteriously in his comfy black chair. His sedentary habits were how he got the nickname Juicy. He was an adorable but inactive and plumb child. Though he was still short and bought his clothes out of a catalog, he had lost a considerable amount of weight. Lana had no idea how he had done it because she still had yet to see him walk more than three feet. She did know he had stopped accepting junk food as bribes.

“Sure,” she said, “you get to work on your toys and it’s one less time you have to use your legs during the day. Seriously, aren't you worried you’re going to get a blood clot or something sitting on your butt all day?”

“Nope, the rolling chair gets in tomorrow,” he said.

She shook her head and started playing around with some of the gadgets on his table.

“Well, what did you want to show me?” he asked.

She stretched as if uninterested in the prospect, and then carefully pulled the photos out of her bag. “These,” she said, tossing the package at him. 

He spread them out and began to examine them with a magnifying glass while she continued to play. 

“What’s this?” she asked, noticing a new trinket on his shelf. It was round with a loop on either side. 

“Just a new toy, go ahead and try it out. I’m going to scan these into my computer,” he said. He glanced back at what she was doing as he headed to another room. “Um, try not to break it,” he said.

She was spinning the thing around her finger by one of the loops. “Ha, ha,” she mocked. But almost as soon as he left, she accidentally flung the thing into a canister on his desk that was holding various odds and ends.

“Dang it,” she said, rushing to pick up the spilled pens, tacks and other items that tumbled onto the floor. She got the things that rolled under the table first then hit her head standing up.

“Ow,” she said, sitting back on the floor rubbing her head as more items fell and rolled off the table.

“Okay I got it,” Juicy called from the other room.

She jumped up, brushed some stuff under the rug, stuck some tacks in her pocket and set the slightly less full canister back on the desk just before Juicy came back in. She leaned against the desk trying to look nonchalant.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said, shrugging. “Are you?”


“What?” she repeated. 

He looked confused, but slightly amused. “Anyway, do you want the originals back?”

“Yes,” she said, grabbing them. “And I should really be going,” she said, stepping carefully over the rug and toward the door.

“Wait! What should I be looking for?” he asked.

“Don’t know. It’s a favor to Uncle Jeff.”

“You mean Uncle Looney Toon?”

“Yes. It may just be someone’s idea of a joke or nothing at all, but I promised I’d look into it. To me it looks like it might actually be a map. So just see if it matches up with anything in the area.”

“Great. Is this a freebie?”

She shrugged. “It’s not like you don’t owe me,” she said and started to leave.

“Hey, where are you headed?” Juicy asked.

“Coffee shop. If you come up with something, send the results to my PDA.”

“Of course, but maybe you should take it easy on the caffeine for a while, I heard it makes clumsiness worse.”

“Thanks,” she said. “You want me to bring you a bear claw?”

“No thanks.”

“A bag of donuts?” she asked, backing up toward the door. “Maybe an extra-large milkshake, for old times sake.”

“Bye Lana.”

She smiled and made her exit.

When she got outside the rain had stopped and the sun was coming out. She smiled. The weather cheered her up and she thought maybe she didn’t need any coffee. She walked to her car and then reached in her pocket for the keys. “Ow, what in the world,” she shouted.

An old woman walking by with a grocery bag looked at her frowning.

“Hi Mrs. Howard,” Lana said, waving awkwardly.  She peeked in her pocket and saw the tacks she had picked up nestled around her car keys. She sighed and carefully extracted the keys. 

She looked up quickly thinking she heard someone else, but no one was there. 

 Paranoid, she told herself. After she locked the photos in her car, she walked two blocks to the coffee shop. By the time she finished ordering Juicy had sent her a message. “That was quick,” she messaged back. 

The crop circles did correspond to a map of the area, and it looked like she’d have to go back to the country. She groaned and slipped the phone that was also a PDA into her pants’ pocket. She had the feeling there was someone watching her again. She glanced out the window just in time to see a truck drive by.  She told herself it was probably just a coincidence and took her coffee to go.

Once again on a country road outside of town, Lana drove holding her PDA in one hand pressed against the wheel. She pulled onto a private drive, hoping she was following the map correctly. After she parked she tried to think of a reasonable explanation for coming to a stranger’s house unannounced. She glanced at the old house then checked her glove compartment box. She kept a pocket knife there. She took it out and put it in her bag, just in case. 

She jogged to the door and knocked.

It opened part way, restricted by a chain lock.

“Hi,” she said in her friendliest voice available for a Monday. “Is this your land?” she asked.

 “Yes, for seven generations, and I‘m not selling,” a man said before closing the door. 

Lana sighed, reapplied the  smile, and knocked again.

“Hi, again,” she said when the door cracked open. “Actually, I was asking because I think I’m lost.”

There was no response from the man behind the door.

“I’m on a scavenger hunt,” she continued. “I’m supposed to go to find a pumpkin patch, but I think I took a wrong turn.”

“You are lost. You need to go way back that a way.” A wrinkled hand slipped through the crack and pointed in the direction. “It’s at least ten miles before you get to any pumpkin patch. I better write it down for you.”

“That’s okay I think I got it. It’s that way, right? But the thing is I drove forever without seeing anything and… I really need to use the bathroom.” Her eyes widened like a pleading puppy. “Don’t suppose I could use yours?”

“Sure honey,” he said.

Lana smirked to herself. Works every time, she thought.

The house reminded her of Jeff’s, but it was in better condition and had a delicious smell in the air. The old man was named Mr. Thompson. He told her his wife was baking and led her down a hall to the bathroom. The hall was lined with photos of a blond girl at various ages. 

“Is this your daughter?” Lana asked, pointing to a photo of the girl beaming at the camera in a cap and gown.

“Yes,” he said in a tense voice. 

Lana sensed something important hiding in that answer. “How long ago did she graduate?” she asked.

“Two years. She wanted to be a vet.”

She had heard that tone of voice before. She heard it every time Jeff spoke about what Emily wanted to do.

“I’m sure she would have been a great vet. You can see the compassion in her eyes,” Lana said. The man smiled. 

“Hey, why don’t you stay for some pie?” he said.

“I’d love to.”

He pointed her to the bathroom then went to the kitchen to talk to his wife.

In the bathroom Lana pulled out her PDA and looked at the map. She cocked her head trying to visualize where the marked route ended. She thought it led to a room in the house but it seemed to point past the house. She looked out the bathroom’s small window and her eyes narrowed on a place hidden by trees. 

She quickly pushed the window open and slipped out. She ran to the place marked on the map and hoped no one was glancing out the window at that moment. Once she actually reached the miniature woods growing behind the house, she felt silly.

“What am I even looking for?” She paced the general area marked on the map, tapped on trees, poked some bushes and slid her foot along the ground trying to upturn something of interest. 

“This is a waste of time and you are a sucker,” she chastised herself. She pulled out her phone again holding it up as if searching for a signal, but she was trying to figure out exactly to what the end of the path corresponded. She took small steps staring at the map then stopped suddenly lowering her hand. She was in front of a large tree. 

“So, is this it?” She took a step closer. “Open sesame.” Nothing. “Yeah I didn’t think so.” Lana turned around and leaned against the tree for a moment. Then she stood up and shrugged. “Oh well, I tried. Better get back before they think I had refried beans for breakfast,” she muttered. She stepped away from the tree and onto something brittle. She frowned and looked down as she traced the cracking material slightly covered in dirt all the way to the head of a skeleton. Then she grimaced. 

She hopped away from the remains then shook a little more in disgust before trying to run back to the farmhouse. She tripped and landed face down right next to the skeleton head. She turned slowly knowing what she would see but unable to resist the urge to look. She turned to the skull ready to hold back a panicked scream but her unease was replaced by curiosity. Something was strange about the head that had nothing to with the fact that it was skeletal remains. Something was carved into the skull. She knew she had seen the image before, but couldn’t remember where. She hopped up as quickly as she could and ran back to the farmhouse.

Lana sat in the Thompson’s living room with an untouched slice of pie on her lap, being questioned by a cop who stood over her. 

“So tell me again, how did you happen upon this body?

You wouldn’t believe me no matter what I said, Lana thought. She set her pie aside and got ready to leave.  “I told you already. Check the photo I gave you against a map.”

“Right…a message in crop circles” he said, reviewing his notes. “We will.”

“Do you want to charge me with something or can I go?”

“Sure, leave. Just don’t leave town.”

Since the police were done harassing her, Lana quickly headed for the door. On her way out Mr. Thompson thanked her.

 "It was hard not knowing," he said. “We’re glad you found her.”

"I’m glad you didn’t find her that way,” Lana said, “but I’m surprised you never came across that area." 

"We used to spend time in that patch, but we haven’t gone in there for over a year." 

"Why not?" Lana asked.

 "A man came around doing some soil test or something. He said one of our neighbors had a chemical spill and it was potentially dangerous."

 "Was this before or after your daughter went missing?" Lana asked.

 "Just after," he said with a sigh. "The man said so long as we didn’t eat anything grown there it should be fine but we might want to avoid the whole area just in case. We were pretty sure our daughter was dead even without the body and my wife was so stressed she made me promise not to take any chances by going near there.”

 “Do you remember what he looked like?" Lana asked.

 "Vaguely,” Mr. Thompson said. “He was average, seemed a little slow... He had light brown hair and was wearing a cap with initials on it, RLB or TRB. There was definitely an R and B in it, and some other letter." 

"You should tell the police," Lana suggested.

 "You don’t think..." 

"I don’t know but you better tell them just in case." 

They said goodbye and she went to her car, but she didn’t pull off right away. Lana decided to call Uncle Jeff. 

"It’s me," she said when he picked up.

“Hi, find anything?" he asked right away.

"I’ll tell you about that later. Right now I need to ask you some questions. These photos are of your land right?"

 "That’s right." 

"Why did you take them?" she asked.

 "A buyer asked for some aerial views of the land," he explained.

 "A buyer? I didn’t know you were selling," Lana said.

 "I put it up for sale less than a month ago, but after I saw those crop circles there was no way I would sell." 

"Yeah, anyone could guess that’s just how you’d react… So who was this buyer?" she asked.

 "Don’t know. It was a young man by the sound of his voice. He called me an’ said he saw the ad but wanted a better look. He asked for some aerial shots. After I took the photos I wanted to call and say I wouldn’t sell but I guess I wrote the number down wrong," Jeff said. 

"And he never called back?” Lana asked.

 “Not yet.” 

“Ok thanks. I’ve to got to go. I'll call you back when I get to the next location," she said. 

"Huh?" Jeff reacted confused. 

"Those crop circles are really a map," Lana explained. 

"I knew it!" 

"Talk to you soon, bye.” 

After she hung up, Lana pulled up the map from Juicy on her PDA. She was a few miles on her way when a blue pick up pulled behind her. The truck was well maintained and had tinted windows.  It pulled up close behind her. 

“What’s your rush?” Lana asked. She moved over to let the truck pass, but it just followed her. Then it rammed her from behind. “Hey!” Lana shouted.

 She sped up but the truck stayed on her tail. It could go faster than her little car and whoever was driving was trying to run her off the road. The road was uphill of a wooded area that lined it on both sides.  The truck pulled up next to her and turned hard pushing her car into the trees below. As the truck sped off, Lana did her best to avoid crashing. The small size of her vehicle finally worked to her advantage; it could fit through the gaps between the trees. The car slid down the damp, steep, sloping ground, while Lana turned hard on the steering wheel and managed to avoid the trees. Finally, the car slid through the brush and onto a bridge built over a stream. The surface allowed the car to stop and it was stuck.  Lana sat still, shocked for a moment. She started to reach for her phone but when she finally did move the bridge creaked as one of the car tires broke through it. Carefully Lana tried to open the door. The bridge was too narrow, and the side rails pinned her in. The bridge creaked again, weakening under the weight of the car. Lana rolled down the window and pulled herself out.

 She grabbed hold of the side railing just before the bridge floor gave way and the car fell into the stream. The stream was deep because of the recent rains. It drowned her car and her bag and phone with it. Lana carefully navigated what was left of the bridge back to safer ground and then looked down at her car. She could still see the top of it and hoped it could be saved later. She made her way back to the main road. There was no sight of anyone or the blue truck. Lana decided to keep walking the way she was headed since it was toward town anyway. It was beginning to get dark when she finally saw a house. She was happy enough to run to it but too tired to actually make the effort. She dragged herself up the driveway leading to the large place and rang the bell. 

A man in his early thirties with dark brown hair answered. He looked unfriendly and surprised. 

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Hi, sorry to disturb you but I had a car accident a few miles back,” she explained.

“And you survived,” he said flatly.

“Yeah…but my phone didn’t. I was wondering if I could use your phone,” Lana said.

He glanced behind him. “One minute,” he said before closing the door.

Lana sat down on the porch steps until he came back.

“Okay, you can come in,” he said in a friendlier tone.

Lana followed him inside feeling uneasy. They went through what could have been a living room but was filled with packing materials.

“You run some sort of business from here?” she asked.

“Yes,” was his short reply. 

Down the hall all the doors were shut except one.

“The phone is in there,” he said. Then he smiled. He was somewhat handsome but something about him made Lana uneasy. “You look tired. Can I get you something to drink? How about a sweet tea?”

“Yes, thanks,” Lana said.

“I’ll be right back with something for you,” he said and closed the door behind him.

Lana looked around the room. It was small and seemed to be an unused bedroom. The phone was on a nightstand by the window. She went to it and called Juicy.

“So where are you exactly?” he asked after she explained. 

“I’m not sure of the address, hold on.” She saw some magazines about farming services on the lower shelf of the night stand. She checked the labels, but they had been partially pulled off. 

“I’m at a huge farmhouse,” she said. “It’s a business and must be at least 7 miles from the first map site. It’s Russet Brothers Insecticides, at 9 South something. That’s all I can find of the address on this label.” She took the phone to the door and looked out. “The man hasn’t come back yet. I’ll ask him.”

“Is he a Russet brother?” Juicy asked.

“I guess. All I know is he gives me the creeps,” she said. “Wait a second,” she said in a whisper, as something dawned on her. “RBI,” she pulled back the curtain on the window. Outside was a plane painted a dark tan with the initials RBI. Across from it, in another barn that had been converted to a garage was a blue truck. “It’s the guy. Juicy I think he may have killed the Thompson girl…He may have killed Emily. Hello, hello?” 

The phone was dead. Lana ran into the hallway. It was empty. She went back the way they had come and peeked around the corner. She pulled her head back quickly. The dark-haired Russet brother had come into the living-room, but he hadn’t brought her a drink. He was holding an ax.

Lana went back down the hall pulling on the doors, but they were locked. When she passed the room she had been in, she locked it too and continued to try other doors hoping it would buy her sometime if he thought she had locked herself in there. Finally, a door was open, and there was another door at the other end of the room. Lana ran to it and pulled but it was locked. So was the window. She was looking around for something to break the window with when a voice startled her.

“Are you scared?” a young man asked. He had been hiding in a corner of the room.

Lana swung around raising a lamp she had just picked up. 

“Please don’t be scared,” the man said. He had light brown hair tucked under a tan baseball cap. “It’ll just make him mad.”

“Who are you?” she asked. 

“I’m Charlie Russet.” He frowned at her, “You’re not my brother’s friend. He likes to have blonde friends but then he gets mad at them.”

Lana lowered the lamp. “Charlie, I followed a map here. It was left as crop circles on my friend’s farm.”

His eyes widened then he turned away from her, “You weren’t supposed to figure that out. I just felt bad about the girls and - and- it just happened as I was making the crop circles. James will be really mad now.”

 “You made the crop circles?

“To keep the man from the field. If he found her, James would be in trouble. He didn’t mean it, that’s why he took her home.”

Lana bit her bottom lip. “Emily… she’s hidden her father’s own fields,” she whispered.

“He …he doesn’t mean to hurt them. And he always takes them back home.”


There was a nock on the door, “Charlie, are you alone in there? Let me in.”

Charlie moved toward the door.

“Don’t,” Lana whispered. “Charlie, you know what happens when your brother is mad. Please, help me.”

“Charlie!” His older brother called.

“Coming,” he said.

Then he ran to the other door and took out a key. He unlocked it then turned to Lana and whispered, “Run!”

“I know she’s in there,” the other Russet brother yelled. A thumping sound started as he hacked at the door.

Charlie went to the door and Lana ran out the other. She rushed through the house and found herself in a kitchen. She pulled at the kitchen backdoor without much hope, but it was old and gave a little. There was only one chain lock. She turned around. There was a knife set on the counter. She grabbed a knife and pried at the old wood. It gave way and she fled out the door. She headed to the barn where she saw the truck. Most farms had more than one vehicle and most people living in isolated spots left the keys in the vehicles they used around the farm. 

The truck was unlocked but she couldn’t find any keys. She pried open the paneling with the knife and looked at the wires but didn’t recognize how they were coded. She peeked through the front window and saw that the brothers were outside. They were arguing. Now the older brother had a gun and he forced Charlie to take the ax. Lana crouched down and slid out the car. The place was cluttered. There were all the typical things: four wheelers, tools, gas cans, fertilizer and farm equipment, but no keys. Trying to stay hidden, Lana looked back outside. She couldn’t see them. She told herself not to panic. She was sure Juicy heard enough information to get to her… eventually. She’d have to do something to draw attention. She grabbed a gas can then went to the work bench and picked up some rags. 

“Don’t move,” said the older brother’s voice. She froze without turning around obeying him for a moment. Then she leapt suddenly to the side. He shot and missed, hitting the plastic fuel can instead. She had dived behind a field machine and crawled as fast as she could between the old equipment to move closer to the door. She dropped the leaking can by a pile of outdated machinery and continued belly down toward the open door.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” he said. He shot into the shadowy mess. Slowly he walked toward the open door taking a couple of random shots as he went. 

He sounded crazed. Lana couldn’t get out without moving full into the light from the open door. She sat and looked back to her last hiding spot where she had dropped the gas can. It was between him and her. Lana pulled off a shoe and tossed it where she had dropped the leaking can. As she expected he fired immediately. He ran toward the spot and fired again. The old abandoned machinery sparked and lit the fuel. She took her chance to  reach the door.  He still shot at her, but the fire was spreading quickly and creating a barrier of flame and smoke between them. 

She ran as fast as she could away from the barn. Larger and larger explosions went off as the fire reached vehicle fuel tanks. As she shielded her face, she saw Charlie running toward the burning building.

“No Charlie!” she shouted but he didn’t seem to hear her. He ran into the burning building just before a large explosion caved in the roof of the old barn. Lana was knocked off her feet.

Soon she heard sirens very near. Then she heard a vehicle start nearby.  She squinted through the smoke and saw an old four-wheeler pulling off from around the side of the house. She ran after it but there was no point. She sat down watching more of the barn collapse and burn as she waited for the police and firemen to show up.


Lana was taken to a patrol car to wait for an ambulance; she had said she didn’t need, while the firemen worked to put out the flames. It was more smoke than fire now, but Lana knew they were much too late to save anything important…like Charlie.  

She sat wrapped in a blanket, with the car door open. Then, Juicy came running to her.

“I didn’t know you were here,” Lana said.

“I came with the police after your call. Then there was a report of a fire. What happened?”

She explained that the older Russet brother was responsible for a string of murders. “I saw a strange carving in the Thompson girl’s skull. I remember now it was the same mark found on another murder victim a few years back,” Lana said. “He’s been killing these young blondes and sending his younger brother to scare people away from the dump sites. Charlie, the younger one, felt guilty and when he made the crop circles to keep Jeff from selling the land he built as a map to another girl.” Lanna shook her head sadly. “He didn’t really expect to get his brother caught. I’m sure it was one of them that ran my car off the road.” Lana sighed, wondering how many times she’d have to repeat the story. “After the fire started Charlie ran in after his brother but I think James had already escaped through another door.”

Juicy nodded. “We intercepted him, that’s why I’m just getting here even though we were headed to you first.”

“They got him?” Lana asked.

“Yes,” Juicy said.

She let out a sigh of relief. Then she stood wearily and stretched. “Well, that’s one less worry,” she said.

“You must be exhausted,” Juicy said. “I’ll find someone who can take us home.”

As he went off, Lana watched the black smoke blend into the black sky. At that moment the air was hot, dry and stinging but her cheeks were wet.