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Strange Valley
cover design 2004 Ardy M. Scott.

 

A clerk working in the census bureau discovers a series of anomalies in the population of a small city located in the Ozark Mountains.

 

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Strange Valley

SF suspense

Darrell Bain

 


Chapter One

 

The small city of Masterville is located in extreme northern Arkansas, near the border of Missouri in the heart of the Ozark mountain range. It sits at the bottom of a valley which is surrounded by rather large foothills. The hills grow even larger in the distance, rising finally to heights of several thousand feet before turning into rounded mountains, worn down by time. The valley, and the city it enclosed, might never have been noticed, or at least come into public awareness, had it not been for an obscure government clerk who worked as a statistical analyst for the Census Bureau. He was a career civil servant and conscientious to a fault. His name was Harry Beales and he had spent most of twenty years in the same office, sifting data from census figures as if the fate of the nation depended on what he wrought from his tables and graphs and rows of numbers appended to obscure facts. However, the fate of the nation paid Harry no mind until well after the turn of the century, when the Census Bureau computers became sophisticated enough to sift out some anomalies, which Harry then noticed.

Other, more modern computers might have picked up on the figures earlier but Harry had no access to them, and he was the only person in the bureau whose job description specifically directed him to search for unexplainable blips. Even after the new computers were installed, it was several years after the census had been completed before the amoeba-like distribution of data was completed and found its way to Harry's desk. He could then begin the plodding search for unusual facts and figures from the last census that he was responsible for finding.

Give Harry his due. He recognized the first little oddity buried in the wealth of newly updated files and he followed up on it relentlessly. What he saw first was that in the small little city of Masterville, high up in the Ozarks, the national divorce rate didn't seem to apply. There were very few divorces in Masterville. Not only that, as his curiosity was piqued and he looked further, he saw that there weren't that many marriages, either. Both facts were anomalies and Harry was very good at anomalies. That was his job, after all. He searched some more.

Harry thought that the low divorce and marriage rate would indicate a greater percentage of people with different last names living together and that turned out to be the case. He knew from previous census data that as a rule, those households where couples lived together without benefit of marriage should have fewer children in residence, regardless of which parent they belonged to, or whether the offspring belonged to both. That turned out not to be the case; there were more, not less. Apparently the citizens of Masterville cared little for marriage but lots for children. About this time, he noticed that it was near five o'clock, and bureaucrat that he was, he called it a day. The next morning he plodded back to his figures.

During the course of that day, Harry discovered several other disconcerting facts. Following up on family statistics, he keyed into Department of Human Resources files and found that, contrary to his expectations, very few of the unwed mothers in Masterville were on welfare or Medicaid, or ever had been; in fact, most of them lived with the father of their children. This led him back to educational levels, an indication of income. These women had an average of three years of college and an average income even higher than that bit of data should indicate. He thought then that the racial balance in Masterville would be skewed toward a lower percentage of minority groups than average, but again the facts were contrary; the racial classification was about average for that area of the country. By this time Harry began developing a personal rather than a professional interest in the cluster of statistical aberrations. His curiosity was highly aroused, even though he was only doing what he was paid to do. It was simply that his work had finally become interesting rather than routine. He became so involved in his study that he actually put in more than two hours of overtime that day before remembering he was working for nothing. Overtime wasn't authorized in his department. He hastily shut off his computer terminal and locked his little cubbyhole of an office and went home to his statistically normal wife and two children, a boy and a girl.

Usually, being a considerate husband and father, Harry tried to spend some time after work with Bertha, his wife, and John and Mary, their two children. After that, he watched TV, scanning over the several hundred channels his receiver would accept while looking for an interesting program.

This evening though, Harry was distracted. Right after dinner he zapped into a bland, uninteresting movie and left the channel selector alone while his mind wandered. Later, in bed, he found that he couldn't sleep; the problem from work kept intruding. In all his years as a statistical analyst, rising slowly but surely from GS-6 to GS-13, he had never seen anything like the data he had pulled from the computer files over the last two days, and he really didn't know what to do with it. The figures kept turning over in his mind like a school of fish slowly breaking the surface of a tranquil lake, rising and falling back into the depths, leaving only ripples behind. He finally slept, but badly.

The next day being Saturday, Harry was off work, of course. He rose, red-eyed and irritable at his inability to sleep during the night. He showered, shaved, had his usual breakfast of bacon and eggs and toast then went out into his garage and began tuning up the lawnmower. Winter was over and tufts of St. Augustine grass were beginning to send out green tendrils in the front yard.

The mower wouldn't start, perhaps because Harry wasn't paying much attention to what he was doing and didn't tighten the sparkplug securely enough after replacing it. A little later he came back into the house, washed up and informed Bertha that he was going back to the office to catch up on some work. Bertha stared at him. Harry had never gone to work on a Saturday as long as she had known him.

"Harry, dear, is anything wrong?" She asked.

"No, honey," Harry said. "Just a little problem at the office. I'll be back soon."

Before Bertha could question him further Harry departed in their new van, purchased after his last promotion. Once on the way, he drove faster than normal, anxious to get to work for the first time he could remember, notwithstanding that it was his day off and that he certainly couldn't expect to get paid for his time. Nevertheless, he entered his little office and booted up his computer terminal with all the enthusiasm of a four year old turning on Saturday morning cartoons.

Harry did not return home soon. Once ensconced at his desk he forgot all about what time it was. Following up on the facts he had already gathered, he flung his net wider and discovered that his data applied not only to Masterville, but to surrounding towns and villages, spilling out into the broad valley for miles around before beginning to taper off to more normal findings.

Once he had the anomalous area pretty well mapped, Harry began a search for other statistical aberrations within the plat. They were not hard to find, once he began looking, and knew what he was looking for. Crime seemed to be almost nonexistent in the valley and the surrounding area. Masterville had never accepted any government grants for parks or sewer systems, no government money to maintain or develop historical sites or any of the other programs congressmen were so fond of grabbing for their districts to help them get reelected. Federal and state welfare programs were being utilized hardly at all. Masterville College, a private school, had never accepted a government grant. Both of the Masterville hospitals, and its single nursing home, operated entirely without government funds, not even Medicare reimbursement.

Indeed, neither would have been reimbursed by the government because they had never applied for Medicare or Joint Commission accreditation, a prerequisite for government help. Harry checked and found that both hospitals and the nursing home were inspected by the state, but that was all, as if the directors did only the minimum required by law.

This fact led Harry to check on the public schools. None of them were registered with the federal nutrition program or for school lunch funding or any other federal or state program other than those specifically prescribed by law.

This induced Harry to search out income distribution for the whole population, not just the plethora of unwed mothers. He found that income followed a normal bell-shaped curve, but the curve itself was shifted somewhat to the right when compared with national figures.

Valley residents earned more, on average, than would be expected for that area of the country and its industries. Home ownership also turned out to be much higher than in other parts of the nation, though he was hard put to find much financing by government programs. The local banks appeared to hold most of the mortgages on homes in the valley. These facts made him wonder whether he had misread the minority population statistics. He went back to them.

No, they were about normal for that area of the country, but the minorities in Masterville seemed to get along unusually well in life, as if no one there cared about their color or origin or religion. That didn't seem right, given the contrariness of human nature, but when he delved into other files he was accumulating at an astounding rate, he could find very few instances of discrimination suits or racial unrest, not as far back as he could check. In fact, he could find very few lawsuits of any kind when he decided to check into that area of Masterville's business and sent out electronic feelers for the data. Stranger and stranger, he said to himself, as intrigued as a small boy who has just discovered tadpoles or garden snakes.

The next thing Harry delved into was religious affiliation, and there he soon found another glaring blip. The most common religious preference of the inhabitants appeared to be "none." Although that was implied data rather than hard figures, since a number of people typically marked none on their census forms. But he also determined the fact that there was a dearth of churches in Masterville. There were far fewer than usual for a city squarely in the middle of the "Bible Belt" of America, an area stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Midwest, where religion played a great role in most communities and the lives of their citizens.

By the time Harry had pulled all these bits from the files he had gathered, he was becoming excited. There seemed to be no end to the phenomena. At this point, impelled to action by all the statistical abnormalities, Harry did something which was specifically forbidden to government employees: he began looking into political affiliations. In order to get into this area, he had to use a few techniques which were generally known but almost never used by the computer operators. The techniques bordered on the illegal.

Ordinarily, he wouldn't have thought of doing such a thing, but by this time he was far gone in his research. He hooked into the voting rolls of Masterville County and discovered that a very high percentage of registered voters listed themselves as independent rather than giving a party affiliation. Feeling guilty, he began checking local, state and national election results from Masterville. He found that most of them, and most especially the local elections, had all been very one-sided, almost as if the citizens had agreed beforehand on what the results should be or whom they should vote for.

Harry worked most of the day. He turned up other peculiarities, none of which would have caused alarm taken alone, but added to all the other oddities about the valley, were disconcerting to a degree. Average life span was several years longer than in the rest of the state or nation. Illegal drug use was very low. Enlistment in the armed services was high, though there appeared to be few military retirees from Masterville on government rolls. Interracial marriages, where there were marriages, were high. Most residents had been born in the valley, and apparently intended to die there. It took a while to ferret out the data from obscure sources, but Harry found that Masterville apparently did not cater to the tourist trade. There were few motels or hotels in the area, unusual for being so near other highly rated vacation spots.

This last datum made Harry wonder how the residents of Masterville supported themselves. It took a while but eventually he discovered that the little city supported many cottage industries specializing in products which were usually imported from overseas. Masterville charged higher prices but produced such quality goods and niche items that they found a ready market. He smiled to himself when he found that one little factory employing a dozen or so persons was making a good profit by hand sewing shirts in the old sizes of neck and arm length rather than the three standards from overseas, small, medium and large. Harry remembered gritching to Bertha about how he could never find a shirt that fit right anymore. He happily book-marked that data for his personal use later. Someone in Masterville was making a good living supplying that want, it seemed, and he intended to add his business to their list of customers.

There were more bookstores per capita in Masterville than would be expected, and fewer Movie theaters and game rooms. The city supported a publishing house which specialized in books of fiction and nonfiction which didn't quite fit the mold of the big New York Houses, and checking their web site, Harry saw that they were making no attempt to imitate the giants; they simply looked for good literature to publish, and were doing so at a profit, though few best sellers had come from their presses. There were also a couple of ebook publishers with thousands of titles in each of their catalogs.

It went on and on, but finally Harry had to call a halt. He had skipped lunch entirely and it was already past time for dinner. Reluctantly, he shut down his computer then locked up and went home.

Bertha insisted that Harry stay home and attend church with her Sunday morning and mow the lawn that afternoon. Harry would much rather have been in his office sitting at his work station, but he did as she asked. Besides, he needed time to think about what to do with his findings, and the monotonous rounds of the mower (which he had fixed) gave him leeway to consider the problem.

Masterville and the valley in which it sat was a strange place indeed if his data was accurate, and he had no reason to doubt that it was. By the time the yard was mowed level and Harry came in for dinner he thought he could sum up his thoughts in one short sentence: Masterville was just too good to be true. There must be something wrong there, though for the life of him, he couldn't figure out what it might be. He just knew that such serene, peaceful prosperity as the valley seemed to typify was as out of place in present day America as an oil derrick on the White House lawn. He made up his mind to see someone about it, which he did on Monday morning.

* * *

Harry Beales should have had a place in the history books, or at least a footnote for being the first to uncover the gentle mantle of peace and prosperity hovering over Masterville Valley, but he was after all only a GS-13 clerk and his role in the subsequent investigation was soon forgotten by those higher in the hierarchy of government service. Perhaps Harry would have wanted it that way. Once he turned his findings over to others, he went back to working his normal hours and channel surfing from his easy chair and mowing the lawn on Saturday mornings. Eventually he put the whole episode out of his mind and didn't think of it again until it became national news. Others did no such thing.

 

Chapter Two

  "I don't get it," Daniel Stenning said as he finished reading the condensed version of the Masterville data. He tapped an impatient finger on top of the stack of papers. He looked around the table to see if anyone else agreed with him. Besides himself, there were three other persons in the NSA briefing room located in the bowels of the headquarters building in Washington. Opposite him, the FBI liaison shrugged, but said nothing. To his right was a woman, an NSA field agent like himself, but one whom he had never met. She ignored him and continued perusing the report.

"What is it you don't get, Daniel?" his boss asked. Mandel Crafton had a chisled face and hard flinty eyes that he used like a weapon.

"First of all, I don't see what this business has to do with national security. And second, why is it stamped secret?" He tapped the papers again. "Most of the data here is available to anyone who cares to sift through the census statistics or look it up on the web."

Crafton's eyes focused on Daniel like an invisible laser, hunting for a hint of insubordination. He hadn't wanted him on this case; though mild-mannered, the agent was far too successful at his work for Crafton to think of him as anything other than a potential competitor. Better to use someone like Shirley there, whose loyalty to him was unquestionable. She had already pinned her career to his rising star. However, he hadn't had a say in Stenning's presence. His own superior had specifically ordered him to assign him to the case. Given Stenning's previous history of successful operations, it made him believe his boss already thought there were wider implications to the assignment than he had voiced, and wanted one of the best field agents on it right from the start.

"It's not up to field agents to question an operation, Daniel. And as far as the secrecy goes, no one else other than that little stat clerk and his superior have made all these connections. They have been ordered to stay silent until we determine what's going on here."

"But why? I don't see anything about Masterville that's really earthshaking. So what if the population is a little different? From what I've heard, some of those communities up in the Ozarks and Appalachians have been inbred for generations. Maybe that's the reason. Besides, they seem to be getting along fine as they are and not hurting anyone. Why go in and make people start wondering about it?"

"Maybe too fine," Shirley Rostervik said from beside him. She turned to him and smiled to take the sting out of the contradiction before addressing Crafton directly. Daniel sensed a layer of incipient sexuality beneath the smile, but it did little for him, even as attractively blond and slim as the other field agent was. Sometimes he wondered about himself.

Crafton allowed himself to return Shirley's smile as she continued. "There's something strange about that place. Just look at the gradient map." She pulled a sheet of paper from the bottom of her stack and pushed it to the center of the table. It contained a map of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, the heart of the Ozark mountain range.

"See here, the anomalies begin tapering off the further away from Masterville you go. After thirty or forty miles, you can't tell any difference from the normal population. It's almost as if that city and valley are at the center of an epidemic."

"If it's an epidemic, it's been going on for a hell of a long time," Daniel said. "Previous censuses show the same pattern once you begin looking for it."

"That's the point," Crafton interjected. "Whatever those people are up to, it is part of a long range plan. Perhaps a conspiracy."

"I really can't see where they're up to anything, much less having a plan," Daniel said, dropping his copy of the report onto the table in front of him. He reached for the coffee pot and poured himself a refill. Crafton might be a bastard, but his coffee was always excellent.

"That's enough, Dan. Our superiors think there's some phenomenon there worth looking into and that's all we need to know. You and Shirley have been assigned to the case. You're to go in there, posing as tourists and find out what's going on."

"It seems to me we already know what's going on."

"Enough, I said."

Daniel shrugged. He had said what he thought and was willing to let it go at that. If the powers that be wanted him to go undercover into a happy, prosperous little valley and unobtrusively question its inhabitants, then he would do it, and do a thorough job while he was there. He looked across the table at the FBI liaison agent. "Is the FBI going in, too?"

Crafton answered, looking smug. "No, it was just the first agency notified. When the Attorney General refused them a writ, the problem was passed along to us."

No wonder the Federal agent looked so glum, Daniel thought. All he was there for was as a hanger-on, just in case something illegal turned up that fell under his agency's jurisdiction. That government clerk, Harry something-or-other, must have gone to the FBI first, or his superior had. But then the problem had been passed on to the National Security Agency, and given the paranoia of President Smith, it was no wonder an investigation had been ordered. Well, whatever else, the operation would get him out of the stifling weather of Washington and up into the mountains where it was cool. And perhaps there was a phenomenon in that valley not as benign as he imagined, though he couldn't begin to think of what it might be.

"We're going to need some more information," Shirley said, "Like the names of all the prominent citizens, addresses and workplaces and so forth."

"I'll have it for you tomorrow morning, along with your orders," Crafton said. "In the meantime, let's move on. As Daniel said, this business has been going on as far back as census figures go." He looked down at a sheaf of papers in front of him, thumbed through the stack, then glanced back up. "For instance, in the Civil War Arkansas was a slave state, yet records show that most of the men from around Masterville served on the Union side. Not only that, very few slave owners lived in the area at the time. Doesn't that strike anyone as strange?"

Daniel thought about it. "Not really. The valley is located up in the mountains, not a good place for large plantations. That's where most slave labor was used."

Crafton tossed it back at him. "Records show a normal proportion of slave owners outside the valley. Besides, according to news accounts of the day, sentiment in the valley was overwhelmingly pro-union."

Daniel shrugged. He didn't think that meant much, especially if the valley people shared a common heritage, something yet to be determined.

Shirley spoke up again while brushing a strand of fine blond hair away from her forehead. "Here's the anomaly I think is the most significant: the valley is smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, yet most of the population apparently has no religious preference. Now why should that be? It doesn't compute."

"That's one of the things you're going to find out," Crafton said.

"Why?" Daniel asked. "Or rather, let me put it this way: Wouldn't nosing into people's religious beliefs get us into Constitutional questions?" He didn't bother mentioning that not only did he have no opinion one way or another on the existence of God, he thought all religions were rather silly and had never understood why anyone would believe in them.

Crafton stared at him, then answered, "We've already gotten a legal opinion on that. There's no conflict so long no attempt is made to change or influence beliefs. Mr. Phillips is very interested in the why, though."

Daniel had never met Murray Phillips, the NSC director, but he knew of him. Like many of the current cabinet members subject to Congressional confirmation, he was an avowed, born again Christian. With congress edging ever further toward the philosophy of the religious right, and President Smith already there, it was hard for any other type candidate to pass muster.

Worse, in Daniel's opinion, four new Supreme Court justices of the same ilk had been appointed over the last several years and the court was now delicately balanced on the issue of separation of church and state.

Daniel thought that something like the present investigation, especially with Phillips in charge, might well tip the balance if the proclivities of the valley residents became public. He couldn't help wondering, though, why such a high proportion of non-religious folks should be concentrated in that one area. Perhaps there really was something wrong there, but he decided not to comment any further and simply wait and see what turned up. After that he would decide. Over the years he had rarely prejudged a case. Sometimes he thought he had been born a natural skeptic.

Crafton gazed at Daniel as if his eyes could bore holes into him, then dropped his scrutiny back to the stack of forms in front of him. He shuffled the papers for a moment then looked back up. "I think that's about it for now. Daniel, you and Shirley get together this afternoon and get your stories together so you won't contradict each other. Probably it would be best to pose as a married couple."

Daniel caught the beginning of a smile from Shirley. Her beauty irritated him for no reason he could discern. He thought of telling Crafton that he preferred to work alone, then abandoned the idea. The cover would be reasonable in the situation, a married couple on vacation. He just hoped the investigation wouldn't take that long. He began picking up his copies of the background analysis.

Shirley's smile brightened. "Shall we have lunch and get started while we eat?" She knew of Daniel only by his reputation. Now she decided he was handsome, too, with that short reddish brown hair and long-lashed brown eyes. He was tall as well, and she liked that in a man.

Daniel glanced at his watch and saw that it was nearly noon. He shrugged. "May as well. Any preference?"

"I know a place."

"Let's go, then." He was already thinking of a reason why, as a married couple on vacation, they would be lingering in the unobtrusive little city of Masterville.

Just as they were about to leave, a briefing officer called them back. They spent an impatient hour with him, including ten minutes when Daniel joined him outside for a cigarette break. Afterwards, they were presented with some facts and figures about Masterville not mentioned in the initial brief, and were given Credit cards for the Operation.

* * *

Daniel left his car in the parking garage and let Shirley drive. He raised his brows at her when she stopped by a Lucullan Deluxe and popped the two front doors open.

"I picked the right parents," she said, sliding into the driver's seat.

Daniel went around to the open passenger's door and seated himself. The new car smell of leather and plastic, oil and paint, upholstery and polish were as pleasant as he remembered it from years ago, but the distinctive odor was long gone from his little hybrid Ford Kitten, an aptly fuzzy name for its environmental friendliness, although he had bought it for fuel economy rather than a deep concern over global warming or ozone levels. Personally, he would much rather be driving a big, well-cushioned vehicle like Shirley's Lucullan than his own, but they cost so much that he declined in favor of investing his money.

"Nice car," he told Shirley as she drove away, heading east. Daniel hoped she didn't pick an inordinately expensive place to eat. Once they received their orders and an expense sheet from Crafton, it wouldn't matter, but right now he didn't feel like spending three times what the food was worth in one of the trendy Washington restaurants.

"Thanks. This little dive we're going to doesn't look like much, but the burgers are good."

"Burgers? Somehow that doesn't go with a Lucullan."

"Not to worry; we're eating at Marvin's because I know it's just been swept for bugs. I finished up a case there yesterday."

"How come you're being reassigned so soon?"

Shirley shrugged. "Guess they thought I'd fit the Op, same as you. Crafton may act like an ass sometimes, but he knows what he's doing."

"That he does," Daniel agreed, remembering a bust he had been in on with Crafton. It had gone down bad but his boss never lost his cool, even with one of his agents down and another wounded. Daniel couldn't even remember him raising his voice as he gave orders in a clear, concise voice devoid of even a tinge of emotion, much less hysteria. Too bad he was so insecure that he worried about underlings upstaging him, he thought, then wondered where he had learned that bit of data. He couldn't remember anyone saying anything like that. He turned it over in his mind for a moment then dismissed the thought as something dredged up from his subconscious, unprovable and therefore meaningless.

* * *

Marvin's café did look like a dive from the outside, but once past the entrance it turned into a clean, neat diner, with numerous alcoves set with tables and comfortable chairs with armrests. Daniel pulled a chair back for Shirley and held it for her while she sat down.

"No one has done that for me in years. You must have been brought up in the south."

"Guilty. Mostly Texas, as a matter of fact. Sometimes my attitude gets me in trouble, though. Not all women like the little amenities."

"I don't mind. I've been called a bitch before, but I can't find a thing wrong with good manners."

Daniel seated himself, wondering again why he felt no attraction toward the agent. He felt as if he should have, given her blond good looks and a figure which was slim but possessed perfectly adequate curves. It was a puzzle he had run across before and still didn't know the answer to. He certainly wasn't gay; it was just that some women turned him on and some didn't. Shirley apparently was one of the latter. Well, it would make working together much simpler, assuming she didn't get the hots for him.

He let Shirley do the ordering, a relatively simple affair since all Marvin's served were hamburgers in various guises. He asked for a Coors draft beer to go with it. Shirley asked for white wine. The drinks were there within a minute or two of ordering.

As soon as the waiter was out of hearing, Daniel leaned forward and asked a direct question. "What do you think of all this?"

He got an enigmatic smile in return. "Actually, I don't have a clue. It should be damned interesting, though. I can't wait to meet some of those people in Masterville. They seem too good to be true, somehow."

"There is that," Daniel admitted, "but I still can't see where national security is being compromised."

"Well, you know what the grapevine says about our leader: he sees a conspiracy against America under every rock, and Phillips aids and abets the paranoia."

"Yeah, I've heard that, but who knows, really?"

"It seems pretty obvious if you follow politics at all. Bobby Lee is a slick one; he lets Congress do his dirty work, then just signs the bills and gives them all the credit." The media had tagged President Smith with a shortened version of Robert E. Lee Smith during the presidential campaign.

"I don't follow politics much."

"You should. The country is moving way too far toward the fundamentalist religious agenda. It's getting scary. You didn't hear me say that, though."

Daniel nodded and smiled mirthlessly. Shirley was going to stay on the good side of Crafton and Crafton was staying on the good side of Murray Phillips. The NSA director would prefer a theocracy rather than a democracy, or so it was bandied about among lower echelon agents. As for himself, he simply tried to do his job as well as possible and avoid politics, office and national both, just as he had done in the Marines.

Daniel drew a finger across his lips in a zipping motion just as their food arrived. He took a bite of his burger and raised his brows in appreciation. As soon as he had the burger a few bites along, he asked, "Does posing as a married couple in Masterville suit you?"

"So long as it's a pose. You?"

"Crafton had the right idea. A married couple on vacation is likely to arouse the least suspicion. We may have problems finding a place to stay, though. There seems to be a dearth of motels around that city."

"Terrell told me there's a bed and breakfast listed right in the city. Why don't we try there?" Terrell was the briefing officer who had called them back before they left the agency.

"Suits me. Do you have a number for them?"

"Yup. Wrote it down while I was going over all the data sheets. Here, you call." She handed him a slip of paper with a phone number below the notation, Ruthanne's Bed and Breakfast.

"Okay." Daniel pulled out the new credit card he had been issued. "I'm still listed as Daniel Stenning. What does yours say?"

Shirley set her wind glass down and rummaged in her purse. She held up the new card and chuckled. "It appears that we got married while talking to Terrell. I'm Shirley Stenning now."

"Sounds good." Daniel pulled his phone out and dialed. A few moments later they had reservations for a week, beginning three days from the present, time enough for the drive to Masterville Valley.

"That was easy, Dan. How does it feel to be suddenly married?" Shirley said, giving him a Cheshire Cat grin that promised further teasing if the assignment didn't become too serious.

Daniel simply nodded. He had never been married, even as a cover. This operation promised to be interesting in more ways than one.

 

Strange Valley Copyright 2004. Darrell Bain. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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Author Bio

Darrell Bain is the author of more than three dozen books, in many genres, running the gamut from humor to mystery and science fiction to humorous non-fiction. For the last several years he has concentrated on humor and science fiction, both short fiction, and suspense thrillers.

Darrell served thirteen years in the military as a medic and his two years in Vietnam formed the basis for his first published novel, Medics Wild. Darrell has been writing off and on all his life but really got serious about it only after the advent of computers. He purchased his first one in 1989 and has been writing furiously ever since.

While Darrell was working as a lab manager at a hospital in Texas, he met his wife Betty. He trapped her under a mistletoe sprig and they were married a year later. Darrell and Betty owned and operated a Christmas tree farm in East Texas for many years. It became the subject and backdrop for some of his humorous stories and books.

TTB titles:
Alien Infection
Doggie Biscuit!
Hotline to Heaven
Laughing All the Way
Life on Santa Claus Lane
Medics Wild
Samantha's Talent with Robyn Pass
Shadow Worlds with Barbara M. Hodges
Space Trails
Strange Valley
Tales from a Christmas Tree Farm
The Focus Factor with Gerald Mills
The Melanin Apocalypse
Warp Point

Series
Human By Choice with Travis 'Doc' Taylor. Book 1 Cresperian series.
The Y Factor with Stephanie Osborn. Book 2 Cresperian series
The Cresperian Alliance with Stephanie Osborn. Book 3 Cresperian series.

Author web site.

 

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Census Bureau career civil servant Harry Beales is stunned with the data that reflects Masterville in the Arkansas Ozarks. The small town contains no measurable crime, a much greater than average life-span, no international business chains as everything is locally owned, no federal money is received not even Medicare or Pell Grants, the marriage rate is very low, but offspring very high and no major religion has taken hold. However, the oddest fact is that these trends can be traced back to the Civil War.

Harry's findings reach NSA; they become concerned with this oddity in the center of the Bible Belt especially since the objective of the President of the United States is to imbue Christian family values as the Bill of Rights. NSA field agents Daniel Stenning and Shirley Rostervick are sent to Masterville to uncover and destroy this heretical conspiracy in the middle of the United States that the POTUS and the NSA believe is the biggest threat to national security since the wall fell.

Using hyperbole to highlight the extreme of the fundamentalist religious right movement, Darrell Bain provides a powerful political thriller. The story line showcases a central government that feels so strongly in the end state of Christian based federalism that it leads the people to a restrictive faith in which the means to get there do not matter. This includes beating the bushes to thwart a small town whose residents are living together in harmony as that is not necessarily a pious life style. This reviewer kept thinking of the bane imposed on Rushdie as this strong thriller with a powerful message leaves readers to ponder what is right. Darrell Bain has written a fabulous eye-opening tale.
Reviewed by Harriet Klausner for Baryon.
 



Hell breaks loose in the National Security Agency when a seemingly innocuous clerk at the Census department makes a startling discovery: Masterville, a little city set at the bottom of a valley in northern Arkansas, seems to have some distinct anomalies which set it apart from the rest of the United States.

As the data indicate, Masterville has almost no crime, higher incomes, and more children in spite of a noticeably low marriage rate. Its residents show a longer life-span. Its schools and hospitals receive no funding from the government. Its streets lack hotels and all sort of franchises like McDonald's or Wal-Mart; all business are private owned by local residents. But the most significant anomaly appears to be that even though the city is situated in the middle of the Bible Belt, most of the population show no religious preference. What's more, these strange records seem to go back to the Civil War.

Are Masterville residents mutants? What is their origin? Are they even aware of their own anomalies? Is some sort of epidemic taking place?

Immediately an investigation is ordered and Daniel Stenning and Shirley Rostervick, NSA field agents, are assigned to the case. Posing as a married couple, they go to Masterville, where a series of twists and turns await them.

Things are brought out of proportion by the President of the United States, a ruthless, paranoid ex-preacher who sees a conspiracy against America under every rock and is obsessed with bringing Christian values into the government, a man portrayed as a radical fundamentalist, pitifully ignorant in the subject of science. A city where residents don't get married and show no religious preference? What will happen to our cherished American values? Logically, Masterville becomes an imminent threat. Whether this scenario is a parody of our present government situation, the reader will have to decide.

Definitely a good story. The first chapter is fascinating and the subsequent ones maintain a high tempo of action and suspense that will keep you curious to the end. The science is believable and intelligently written. This book also deals with issues worth pondering. Darrell Bain is a name I will keep my eye on for future reviews. Five stars.

Reviewed by Mayra Calvani for The Midwest Book Review.
 



Five stars!

Nestled in a valley of the Ozark Mountain range lies the town of Masterville, but this town is a little different from the national average. Intelligence is higher, and crime is low. Racial and religion tension is also below the average, despite having a diverse population. There are no chain stores, no franchised restaurants in Masterville. Marriage and divorce rates are low and most of the inhabitants religious affiliation is none.

When a census clerk comes across all these anomalies, he brings it to the attention of his boss, who in turn brings it to his and eventually the news reaches the ears of the FBI, the NSA and the president who is determined to root out these "Un-American" valley dwellers as he comes to see them.

Daniel Stenning is one of the NSA agents sent undercover to find out what exactly is going on in the small isolated town in the mountains. When he arrives he is surprised to find that the town seems eerily familiar, even though he hasn't been there before. And when he falls in love at first sight with one of the residents, he knows something strange is happening. "It's all right, Daniel. You're one of us."

But who exactly are "us" and why is the government so determined to see Daniel dead? The answers will turn Daniel's world upside down.

Strange Valley was like a roller coaster ride. You opened it and began reading with a steady build-up and then were hurtled forward with hardly time to take a breath. The pace was beyond fast, you just knew you had to keep reading to see what bombshell the author was going to drop next. The term page-turner could have been invented for this book.

Although some of the ideas might seem far-fetched, they were believable and it helped that most things were explained to Daniel at the same time the reader found out about them. Daniel himself is an excellent character, strong but sympathetic too.

I loved this book, it was a bit different from anything I've read before and since I read an awful lot of books, that makes a refreshing change!

Strange Valley is a thrilling adventure that you will be hard pressed to put down.

Reviewed by Annette Gisby, author of Drowning Rapunzel and Shadows of the Rose for Twisted Tales.
 



Only a few of Masterville's citizens are aware of the anomalies and uniqueness of their behaviors and lifestyle, but with the NSA sending agents to investigate them and their valley will they have time to find the cause and prove they are not aliens, monsters, or a threat?

Harry Beales' work in the Census office is routine if not boring, until he comes across some unusual findings about the small town of Masterville.

NSA Agent, Daniel Stenning, is a bit confused by the NSA's interest in a small town on the Arkansas, Missouri borders. Why are a few unusual statistics and lifestyle choices considered a threat to national security?

When he arrives in the valley with his partner, Shirley, who is posing as his wife on this assignment, he finds a back-in-the-fifties, clean town, and Lisa. The minute she opens the door of the B&B where Shirley and Daniel are registered for their stay in Masterville, the attraction between Daniel and Lisa is obvious. Impossible to hide, impossible to fight. Daniel has no desire to fight it, and begins to suspect he has a lot in common with the unique residents of this pleasant valley town.

Someone else has discovered Daniels similarities to the valley residents too, and he finds himself marked as a target by the agency he used to work for.

Daniel must work with Tyrone and the Masterville council and prove they offer no threat before powerful and corrupt government officials use terrorist tactics to wipe out a small part of the homeland.

Darrell Bain keeps the questions and suspense flowing through the action packed pages of Strange Valley. Thought provoking, this story stirs the imagination with what may at times seem exaggerated and extreme, but then, the extreme and those who err on the side of it is where the danger lies.

Reviewed and Charlene Austin for Writers and Readers Network
 



Strange Valley was just incredible!
Something of a departure for you, wasn't it? My wife greatly enjoyed the Sex Gates series, but hasn't really sunk her teeth into anything else- until Strange Valley. She says to tell you "more, more, more!" So...more, more, more!

Reader comment from Jamie J.

 

 

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