Over here, I offered my readers the chance to vote on what I’ll do with NaNoWriMo this year. Carrie Rubin expressed an interest in a thriller and voted for Terror in a Small Town. I offered her an excerpt and here it is. This is very much a work in progress and there will be changes made, but it gives you an idea of at least the beginnings of the story. The biggest change to be made is to change it from muslim terrorists to homegrown terrorists … and also change the time frame.
Oh, and, well, I’ve only got six votes so far in my poll. I’m gonna need a lot more than that people.
Shortly after 4:00 a.m., when the streets are still dark and Sylvia Griffith is nestled comfortably in the warmth of her bed, lying next to Ben, her husband of twenty-seven years, a man walks down Main Street. The biting cold of the steady wind blowing across the Iowa prairie bothers him. It always has. He hates this place and is glad he will be leaving it shortly. One last job to do and then he will be returning home, a much sunnier climate than he has experienced in Oxford Junction.
He whistles quietly as he walks down the street. In his hand is a backpack. It is small, but quite heavy. Walking past the grocery store that Sylvia will be opening in three hours, the man looks quickly up and down the street to ensure that nobody else is about at such a desolate hour. The street is quiet. No cars or pedestrians are in sight. The man slides around the building and leaves the backpack in a garbage can that leans against the wall of the grocery store. On the other side of that wall is the counter where Sylvia performs in her role as postal clerk. As the man lets go of the backpack, Sylvia feels a chill and snuggles up next to her husband. He wraps his arm around her and pulls her closer to him. In another hour, they will wake more fully and make love, quietly and tenderly, before Sylvia prepares for her day at the grocery store and Ben prepares for another cold January day on the farm, with nothing more to do than putter around fixing odds and ends and wasting time.
The man with the backpack wipes his gloved hands together as if to rid them of dirt and walks quickly back out to Main Street. Instead of returning to the house, where just two days prior he handed Jesse Garfield an envelope with $500 in cash and a killing dose of heroin, he keeps going in the direction he was headed. He stays on the road as it turns into a two-lane country road, taking him through the farms that surround the town. In the middle of summer, as early as it is, there might have been people up and about, preparing for a long day in the fields. But not today. Not in the middle of January. Covered with snow, the farms are dormant and the people who own and work the land are dormant as well. Safely ensconced in their homes. Asleep.
Nobody sees the man as he walks down the quiet country road in the dark of the early morning hours, whistling quietly again, old tunes from home. After a couple of miles, he comes upon a car. He gets in and finds the keys on the floor under the driver’s seat. Soon, he is miles down the road. By the end of the day, the man will be on an airplane returning home. By the end of the week, he will really be home, sitting at a table in a small house on the outskirts of Baghdad. He will enjoy a meal with his family for the first time in more than two years. That is how long he has been in America. The man, who in America allowed people to call him Joe, is really Abdul Aziz and he will be happy to be home.
Three days after his return, Abdul will be gunned down by a Shiite sniper as he walks home from one of the few markets still open for business in the Sunni neighborhood he lives in. His body will be left in the middle of the street until his wife and oldest son come looking for him. Nobody else hurrying along that particular street on that day will be brave enough to approach his corpse, afraid that his body may be boobytrapped or that the sniper who got Abdul is still there, waiting for another target.
Before the man who was known as Joe gets too far away from Oxford Junction, Iowa, at 11:36, while Sylvia is putting postage on a package to be mailed out that day, she thinks about the early morning hours and how her husband had held her and made love to her. The package Sylvia handles will not make it to its destination and Sylvia will not see another day as the contents in the backpack that sits just on the other side of the wall come to life. A huge explosion rips through the building and through Sylvia.
And at 2:51, a fire erupts in a ramshackle house a couple of blocks from Sylvia Griffith’s grocery store. The house where Jesse Garfield got the envelope containing $500 in cold hard cash and the hit that would kill him is destroyed before the volunteer firefighters are mustered up to put the flames out.
While the residents of Oxford Junction discuss amongst themselves the odd coincidence of the explosion and the fire, and mourn Sylvia’s death, nobody makes the connection between those two events and the videotapes received by America’s major news outlets. Not yet. Not until the second videotape is received. Not until more innocent Americans have died. Not until months later when a formal investigation is launched.
And speaking of dead Americans, little Jimmy MacDougal doesn’t want to go to church. It is a Wednesday evening and his favorite television show, Deal or No Deal, is on. Jimmy, nine years old, loves to watch Howie Mandel and the show’s contestants take their chance at winning $1,000,000. It’s not like Jeopardy or Who Wants to be a Millionaire, where you have to know things, you have to be smart, to win. No, Jimmy likes Deal or No Deal because anybody can win, even stupid people.
But, once a month, Jimmy has to go to church on a Wednesday. Coming from a good Irish Catholic family, church is mandatory, and not just church on Sundays and holy days. Part of the suffering of good Irish Catholics is the occasional weeknight trip to services. And tonight’s the night. Making matters worse is that it is raining out. Jimmy and his mom will have to walk the six blocks to the church in a torrential downpour that has lasted most of the day.
Jimmy mumbles to himself as he dresses for church and considers the possibility that a short sermon may get them out of church early enough for him to get home to watch the last half hour of the show. Of course, that would mean his mom won’t get held up talking about the price of fish with the old Italian women who always sit in the front pew and want to shake his hand and tell him what a fine young man he is for coming to church with his mother on a Wednesday evening.
When they get to St. Paul’s on East Rochester Avenue in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, Jimmy and his mom take seats in the back row of the church. It’s a good sign for Jimmy. If he pushes her to leave as soon as the service is over, the old ladies at the front won’t have their opportunity to stall his return home. Now, if the priest, a recent arrival from some Eastern European country whose name Jimmy can’t quite get his mouth around, would just keep it short. Jimmy sits in the pew, fidgeting and looking around, thinking that the sermon is meaningless anyway. There is no way anybody could understand the priest’s heavily accented English.
As the sermon drags on, Jimmy wants to lean over and tell his mom, “I need to go home. I feel sick.” Something, anything to get her up and moving. Howie and some no-name loser with three friends there as moral support are waiting for him. But he doesn’t. Jimmy knows that the only thing that will get him out of church is the end of the service. When it comes to her time with God, Jimmy’s mother brooks no interruption. So, Jimmy waits. And the sermon drags on.
Finally, the little priest from Something-slavia wraps things up. A few more prayers are muttered by the congregants while Jimmy shuffles from foot to foot. He doesn’t have a watch on so he doesn’t know what time it is, but he knows that time is running out. And, he’s right about that. As the service ends and the faithful rise to their feet and Jimmy begins the dash out the doors, looking back at his mom and saying, “Come on, Mom. Let’s get home,” a backpack placed in a corner of one of the confessionals earlier that day, well, just like the backpack that destroyed Sylvia’s grocery store, this backpack comes alive. Spitting nails and ball bearings at killing speeds when its contents explode in a fiery boom.
Little Jimmy MacDougal, and his mother, Susanna, never have a chance. Their pew is located just outside the confessional that is the center of the explosion. When Jimmy’s body is pulled from the wreckage, the investigators will count over twenty nails embedded in his head and countless holes created by the ball bearings that struck him. His mother will have similar trauma to her body. Both, as well as eight other parishioners of the St. Paul’s Parish, are dead. Jimmy and his mother leave behind his father and his little sister. The old Italian ladies sitting at the front of the church and worried about the price of fish escape relatively unscathed.
Nobody connects the explosion at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a corner grocery store in Iowa, or with a videotape that was sent to the nation’s major news outlets. How could anybody? The videotape didn’t contain any credible threat to America’s interests. Isn’t that what those in authority believed?
A couple of hours after nails and ball bearings ripped through Jimmy MacDougal’s flesh and stopped his heart, Tom Maynard draws up a chair to the kitchen table. He places his head in his hands and sighs. It’s a sigh that goes on almost ten seconds and is followed by a moment of silence. Elise waits for him.
“There was a riot today. The Surenos and the Nortenos squared off. A couple of guards were hurt trying to put it down.” In his bedroom, Luke hears and wants to ask his dad what a “riot” is, what it means when people square off, and what Surenos and Nortenos are. He has an idea, but he isn’t sure and he certainly can’t ask. Maybe he’ll ask when they’re taking a break from riding their bikes on Saturday.
“Elise, I want to quit this job. I’m afraid I’m going to get sucked into something bad. It’s hell there.” And Luke begins to fear the prison and to fear for his dad. To Luke, the prison has become a living, breathing place. In his mind, he imagines a place where the only lighting is made by fire. It is a place where the sun never shines. Where the inmates, “scum” to his dad, are covered with warts and lumps and drool as they shuffle through the darkened, hellish corridors of this place called a prison. Nothing good could possibly come from that place. How could his dad possibly survive the place? Luke falls asleep, hoping again that nothing happens to his dad.
Thursday, January 12, 2008
While it’s blistering cold in Iowa and raining cats and dogs in North Carolina, it is a beautiful sunny day in Southern California. Temperatures are expected to hover in the 70’s. Shortly after lunch, a beautiful Asian woman in a skirt that barely reaches mid-thigh and a sleeveless white top, strolls down a busy street in Los Angeles. She has straight black hair that reaches down her back and sways back and forth as she walks along in her three inch heels. The woman carries eight envelopes in a Gucci shopping bag. She smiles at the men who look at her, knowing that as she passes them, they will be looking after her to catch the view from behind. Every once in awhile she gives her hips an extra little wiggle just to keep things interesting for the men who watch her.
Finding a mailbox is more difficult than it used to be when it seemed as though they were on every street corner. But the woman, whose name is Luann Wong and whose profession is high-priced call girl, knows exactly where she is going. In front of the federal courthouse, she stops and pulls the eight envelopes out of the bag and slides them into the slot of a mailbox. They are addressed to the same five major networks and three major newspapers as the envelopes Sylvia Griffith mailed a day before she died. There is no return address on these envelopes. With postal rules in effect that prohibit mailing any package that weighs more than one pound from a curbside mailbox, there is nothing in the envelope but a videotape. And there will be no risk that the packages violate the weight rule.
A short time after Luann Wong mails her packages, in the small town of Tillamook, Oregon, a school bus, filled with the students of Ms. DeFiore’s third grade class, is making its way to the Tillamook Cheese Factory. It’s an annual event for the students in her class. Ms. DeFiore has made the trip for seventeen years now. It is a routine trip for her. But her children are excited. Upon their arrival, they get to see the giant vats where cheese is processed, the room where the cheese is aged, and the machine that cuts and wraps the cheese before sending it on a conveyor to be packed in boxes for shipping. At the end of their journey through the factory, they get a sample to take with them. Most of the kids eat their sample while sitting on the bus on the ride back to school. Their parents are waiting for them there, expecting to take their children home where they will hear all about the cheese factory in the excruciating detail that only an eight-year-old can manage.
Ms. DeFiore, her five parent chaperones, Gus, the bus driver, and twenty-eight kids have had a long day. It would have been thirty-one kids, but Johnny Santos came down with the flu, Sylvia Burris broke her leg earlier in the week, and Margy Colliston was allergic to milk. Margy could have gone and avoided eating anything, but her mother decided it best that she not go. Just in case. “A child allergic to milk doesn’t need to go to a cheese factory,” is how she put it to Ms. DeFiore, with just a hint of annoyance in her voice.
Ms. DeFiore isn’t thinking about Johnny, Sylvia, or Margy that afternoon. Instead she is enjoying the scenery of the drive back to the school, pointing out landmarks and sights of interest to her children. As the bus goes through a heavily wooded section, where the trees come right up to the edge of the road–so close, in fact, that a child reaching an arm out of one of the bus windows could grab a leaf or pine needle–nobody notices the backpack that hangs from a branch of one of the trees. It is placed at the same height as the bus windows and is as close to the road as possible. The child reaching an arm out could have grabbed the backpack.
The bus driving by this beautiful spot trips a wire strung across the road. The wire is connected to a remote control device. The contents of the backpack come alive. The nails and ball bearings packed around the bomb fly through the windows of the bus, which have already shattered from the force of the explosion. Shards of glass join the bomb’s packing in a deadly aerial assault on the children of Ms. DeFiore’s class. When all is said and done, including the three children who succumb after several days of lying in hospital beds in critical condition, twelve children of Tillamook, Oregon, will die. The remaining children suffer injuries, both physical and mental, that remain with them for the rest of their lives.
In the days that follow, Sylvia Burris’ mom will say a prayer to her god, in thanks for the benefit of a broken leg. Johnny Santos’ father will visit his church and light twenty-eight candles every day for the next twenty-eight days. He will kneel down and pray for forgiveness for the affair he has been having with the cute young thing who works in his construction company’s office. And Margy Colliston’s mother will slide into a depression so deep that she will entertain thoughts of suicide. Eventually, she will spend time at a crisis center in Portland. Ms. DeFiore, who loved to teach, will never step in front of a classroom of children again.
At Tillamook Elementary School, twelve trees will be planted in the memory of those who died. It will be a long time before any students at the school take another field trip to the Tillamook Cheese Factory.
Twenty-five years later, a survivor of the attack will begin to look up the others. They will meet again and catch up. It will become an annual event. An opportunity to heal and move on. The three who weren’t on the bus will be invited to attend and it will be Margy Colliston who suggests that they contact Ms. DeFiore, who will resist coming. There are too many harsh memories she has, too much pain that she still feels to allow her to come. Margy persists and invites her again the next year. And the next. And the next. Finally, Ms. DeFiore will relent. When she walks into a room crowded with the survivors of the Tillamook attack and their families, she is overcome with a tidal wave of emotions–grief for those who were lost, sadness for all of her lost years, relief that she has finally come, and happiness at the sight of the survivors with children of their own running around the room.
That night, Tom Maynard talks with his wife about everything and nothing. For the first time that week, he tells her nothing bad about his work at the prison. Instead, Tom and Elise talk about their day. Tom tells her about the birthday lunch for his boss, a man he respects. Elise tells him how the kids are doing in school and complains that she is gaining weight. They talk about the little things that can matter only to a couple who are still in love with each other. When Elise brings up her weight, Tom motions for her to stop. “You’re just as beautiful as the day I met you, Elise,” he says.
“Stop it,” Elise responds, turning red from the compliment. “That’s not true.”
“Yes, you are. You’re still the most beautiful woman in the world. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Tom. But that doesn’t mean I’m not getting fat.”
“Come here,” he says.
Luke, as has become his custom, has struggled to stay awake until his parents begin their talk. He overhears their conversation and can hear the sounds of his parents begin kissing. At the sound of a moan come from his mom, he decides he needs to go to sleep and listen no more that day. He is happy to hear nothing to be afraid of.
Elise Maynard isn’t the only woman moaning that night. Luann Wong met Manuel a week ago, when he contacted her service. She had no idea if Manuel was his real name and neither does she care. In her line of business, names don’t matter and she is sure the men frequently give her fake names. They met and she serviced him in the backseat of his car. Before they parted, he said, “Can I see you again. Next week. I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Sure. Just call my service.”
“No. I don’t want to call them. Meet me at the Four Seasons Hotel at 10:00 a.m.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Be there,” he says.
And she showed up that morning. “I want you to do something for me and then come back later tonight. Take these,” he says, handing her the Gucci bag, “and mail them. Then, come back here to room 418 tonight. You do your thing. There’s $5,000 in it for you.”
For just the briefest of moments, Luann had paused, not sure if she wanted to play this game anymore. One of the most basic of rules was not to get involved with somebody who didn’t want to go through her service. But $5,000 was a lot of money. Enough, actually, that she should have been more concerned than she was. People usually don’t pay $5,000 for something they can get for $500 or $1,000. When they do, there’s a reason and usually not a good reason.
Now, after mailing the envelopes and making her way to Room 418, Luann Wong is just about finished with a man whose name she does not know. She is moaning, not because she wants to, but because that is what she believes Manuel wants. In her mind, she is elsewhere, sitting on a beach in Hawaii, a drink with a pink umbrella in her hand and George Clooney at her side. Her dream is broken when Manuel rolls off of her and gets up. “Here,” he says, handing her an envelope. She opens it and looks inside to confirm that it is filled with $100 bills. She doesn’t count them. There are enough there for her to know that he has kept his word.
“Oh, there’s one other thing,” Manuel says as he goes over to his bag on the dresser. Luann watches as he pulls his hand out of the bag and turns back to her. In his hand, he holds a gun with a silencer screwed on. Before she can say anything or move, or scream for help, he pulls the trigger and a neat red hole appears on her forehead. Luann Wong slumps to the floor in a heap, dead before her head comes to a rest on the plush green carpet of Room 418 of the Four Seasons Hotel. She will never get to sit on a beach in Hawaii with George Clooney. Or anybody else for that matter.