The problem --(chuckle) or the benefit, 'least to authors seeking royalties-- with "next book in a series" novels is that the writer REALLY wants to assume the reader READ the previous work.
So let me urge y'all to buy-and-read my FIRE OF THE PROPHET... if only so the reference(s) to "The Attack" and "dying city" make sense in this excerpted chapter from PROPHET AND EAGLE, coming soon (soon as I wrap edits & re-drafts, that is)...
— Earl Merkel
** Fire Of The Prophet, is available on Apple's iBookstore, Barnes & Noble.com and Amazon.com. For a description (and to order it, of course) click here. **
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Chapter (still deciding where, but early in book)
Oak Park Shopping Mall
Overland Park, Kansas
1:42 P.M. Central Daylight Time
• • •
Randi Taylor struggled with the heavy glass door, handicapped as she was with an oversized stroller, with a dangling diaper bag, with her big-purse Coach— and, of course, with Amanda herself: still fretful from being awakened, hoisted from a designer-pink car seat, only to be strapped into yet another pink-hued, four-wheeled contrivance.
Which was now wedged in the half-open door, defying Randi’s contortions to simultaneously yank it open and push the stroller through.
She was rescued by a hand that came from behind, reaching past her to pull the balky doorway wide and hold it open.
Randi glanced back, and shot a wan smile in gratitude.
The owner of the hand —a kid, Randi saw, trying to look older than he was— nodded his own smile in return.
They moved inside, as if they were a couple.
“Thanks,” Randi said, “I really appreciate—”
But the young stranger was already gone, absorbed into the hustle of faceless others moving with determination inside.
Randi trudged forward, more than a bit envious of his unencumbered freedom.
Cripes, she told herself. Really packed in here today. Yeah: really great idea, dragging Mandy and everything she owns into this mob scene…
Still, it was an escape. Of sorts.
For the past twelve hours-plus, there had been no respite from what had, rapidly and succinctly, become known as “The Attack.” Every television channel, every Internet website, even the music stations on her car radio during the drive here— all had been consumed with the tragic events in Washington D.C.
For Randi, at first it had been wildly overwhelming— and then, it had become stultifying over-saturated. By Amanda’s noon-time feeding, she had had more than enough televised punditry, “news” accounts that were still little more than ill-informed speculation, and video clips of a dying city —certainly, she had mused, to last her whole lifetime.
And so Randi had packed up her almost-one-year-old, along with the requisite impedimenta that filled even the spacious mid-seat of her Honda Odyssey.
And headed for the mall.
Others had had the same idea. The mall was crowded, a bustling throng of news-refugee shoppers— more reminiscent of a pre-Christmas weekend than of a Thursday afternoon in May.
Lots of offices closed down for the day, Randi told herself. Probably lots of other people too freaked-out to go in, I bet. Didn’t know what else to do, so they came here.
Like me, she added, rueful.
Randi took a deep breath, then wedged the too-large baby carriage —a gift from doting, if somewhat clueless to a young mother’s navigational needs, grandparents— into the jostling torrent of shopping humanity.
As she did, from the stroller came a new, rising clamor.
Perhaps annoyed at the tumult —or perhaps alerted by a primordial, instinctive sense of looming disaster— Amanda started to cry, loudly.
• • •
He had been polite, holding the door for the woman and her child. That was for show, to avoid attracting any unwanted attention; video cameras were everywhere, and he reckoned that any display of nerves, or of impatience, or of anything but what could be deemed “normal” behavior might well mark him in the eyes of any mall security watchers.
Today, for sure, he thought. Especially today.
He had taken pains to appear “normal.” His hair was carefully combed, in a more conservative style than he would otherwise sport; he had donned a pair of casual loafers, which melded well with the pressed-and-creased khaki slacks; a light-blue Oxford shirt, collar-points buttoned over a bright-silk vermillion tie, emphasized his newly fresh-faced features.
Even the stylish sports coat —tweed, possibly a bit too bulky for a mild day in May— suited his needs nicely. It fit well, and the side pockets showed not a sign of the burden they carried.
Six 18-round magazines, three in each pocket.
A total of one hundred and twenty-seven 9-mm. rounds, if one counted the also-loaded Glock and the bullet already chambered therein.
Charles Alexander Clooney —known more familiarly as “Chaz” to what one news reporter would subsequently describe as an “increasingly concerned circle of friends” among his fellow junior-class students at Shawnee Mission East High School— merged seamlessly into the crowd: in it, if not of it.
Ahead of him, at the top of the escalator, a department store anchored the east side of the mall; it overlooked a packed food court.
The store’s open-to-the-mall entryway was marked with a large red star.
To Chaz Clooney, it seemed very much like a beacon.
• • •
Goddam crazy in here today, Piper Cameron muttered, if silently. She sidestepped, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with an Asian woman who bent under the weight of four red-starred shopping bags she carried; instead, bumping hard against the shoulder of a harried store employee rushing in the opposite direction.
Piper straightened, keyed the radio mic clipped to her forest-green uniform’s left-shoulder epaulette.
The response was immediate: “Go ahead, Piper.”
“The thing at Macy’s. All clear. Store decided she wasn’t a shoplifter after all.”
“Ten-four. All clear.” The voice dropped a level, conspiratorial. “Let me guess. A regular customer, hefty charge-card balance?”
Piper smiled despite herself. “Roger that. Just ‘forgot’ she put a bottle of Chanel in her purse. She paid, manager apologized to her for the misunderstanding.”
“Yeah. Make sure you put her name on the report. I’ll archive the video, ‘case she forgets again the next time.”
“Way ahead of you there, Base. I already flagged her driver’s license and Macy’s account numbers. Cameron, out.”
Ah, said the wry voice inside her head. The exciting life of a mall cop. They ought to make a movie. Oh, wait— they already did. No Oscar for that guy, either.
Still, she countered, recognizing how pathetic the unspoken debate sounded even to her, I get to wear a uniform again.
Truth be told, she had missed that. It gave her a feeling of purpose— even if it was a different uniform from that which Piper had worn during two tours in the Sandbox, when her National Guard unit had been activated for duty in the Middle East.
There she had been assigned to a Military Police unit, the beneficiary of specialized training that “they” had promised would make her application a “sure thing” when she returned to full-time civilian life.
The lingering post-crash economy and what seemed like an epidemic of law-enforcement hiring freezes had put a resounding kibosh to those plans.
Piper still sent out her vitae on a regular, if recently a less-frequent basis. But as with the inexorable solidity of concrete hardening, she knew: Fate had carefully studied her, weighed its options, issued its edict.
Congratulations! Your “career” is limited to shoplifters and the occasional pickpocket, she told herself. Oh, yeah: and giving teenaged mall rats —who are almost as bored as I am— carefully jovial, unflinchingly polite suggestions to move along or go home.
She tried to reassure herself. That the latter did so with more than a few snickering asides was due more to youthful disdain for any Authority Figure than to the fact that she was admittedly shorter than many of them, and looked decidedly younger than most of them.
On the plus side, Piper reasoned, after five years in the Guard… well, I’m arguably more physically fit than any of ‘em. So eat your Wheaties, kids. You too can aspire to a thrilling life of crime-fighting at the shopping center…
Piper Cameron sighed.
Ahead of her, through the wide entry of the store, the expanse of skylighted mall was bright and bustling. It turned the foreground of passing shoppers into little more than silhouettes —including one who now detached himself from that moving river of bodies, then stood stock-still gazing down at the crowded food court.
• • •
Amanda was still crying as Randi slid into the just-vacated plastic seat, itself still warm from the previous occupant. Randi wrinkled her nose, only partly due to the miasma of frying meats from the half-circle of food vendors. She frowned at the crumpled burger wrapper and the half-consumed soft drink that her unknown benefactor had abandoned.
A resigned sigh, barely audible; Randi pulled the stroller closer, then fished out an opaque plastic bottle from amid the spare diapers, baby wipes, and other essential detritus that filled the bag.
“C’mon, Mandy,” she cooed. “Let’s see if a little snack will dry up those tears, ‘kay? Just for Mommy, baby?”
Thus occupied, Randi Taylor did not notice the figure —thirty feet above and slightly to the side of her— who at that moment was reaching inside his tweed sports coat.
In this, she was not alone. No one else noticed, either.
• • •
“Pardon me… officer?”
Piper’s lips twisted slightly at the implied question. After all, she was as uncertain about her status as was the older, plumpish woman who had touch her uniform sleeve, a slight discomfort in her stance.
“How can I help you, ma’m?”
“Do you know if… I mean… well, is there a restroom on this floor?”
• • •
The damn thing… is… oh, shit… c’mon!
Right shoulder hunched awkwardly, Chaz could touch the butt of the Glock thrust deeply into the waistband of his trousers. Too deeply: as he worked his fingertips past the belt he had earlier cinched tight, the pistol slipped further down.
It hung at his abdomen, hooked only by the lip of its magazine extension— as delicately poised as a hapless tight-rope artist might dangle by a finger after a slip.
Gravity always wins. As he pushed his two-finger pinch deeper, the Glock was suddenly free— sliding down Chaz’s pant-leg and out the cuff, landing with an acrylic clatter on the polished-concrete floor at his feet.
• • •
Randi snapped off the plastic cap, and touched the bottle’s nipple to her child’s lips.
Still howling, Amanda pushed it away and screamed louder.
• • •
“Yes, ma’m,” Piper said. “There sure is.”
She twisted toward the interior of the store and pointed.
“Straight ahead, then turn left at the escalator. Right next to the credit office.” The security officer smiled. “You can’t miss it from there.”
• • •
Chaz ducked into a crouch and snatched up the pistol, feral in posture and eye.
But among the passing crowd, only one person had taken note: a boy, perhaps six years old, being wrist-tugged by an oblivious mother as they pushed past. As Chaz straightened, from the corner of his eye he could see the boy look back over his shoulder, curious yet unconcerned.
And then Chaz Clooney turned, his waist pressed hard against the balcony railing and the pistol in both hands, the faceless crowd below filling its sights.
• • •
The first shot was a single shot, but only strictly speaking. The nine-millimeter Glock is a semi-automatic weapon, firing once with each trigger-pull. But the plastic-and-metal pistol is also renowned for a smoothness of operation, a steadiness of recoil, an ability for the shooter to reacquire a target quickly and accurately.
It also allows firing at the speed which the shooter can, literally, twitch his finger.
For his initial fusillade, Chaz Clooney twitched his finger at an appalling speed.
Firing into a packed mass —first, a half-dozen rounds down into the food court; then several rounds snapped to his left, right and behind his position— made any sharpshooting accuracy needless.
• • •
The flat, piercing crack-thuds —the first of them, so closely spaced that they merged into a single, ripping, horrific stutter— spun Piper into an involuntary crouch, her body reacting with instincts honed under an Afghan sky even before her conscious mind had identified the sound.
Not so for the plump woman beside her, still standing but now wide-eyed.
“Gun! Get down!” Piper screamed, and the woman’s eyes shifted toward her without comprehension.
And then her face exploded in a crimson mist, simultaneous with what Piper knew-without-counting was the next three-round burst. The woman —a body now, nothing more— fell to both knees, swaying slightly, then toppled to the floor.
Piper looked around wildly, trying to identify the source amid the chaos of gunshot echoes and the sudden cacophony of screams.
Other bodies were falling now too, almost at random: a man in a Kansas City Royals baseball cap clutched at his neck, spinning into a trio of manikins and sending all four figures tumbling; a teenaged clerk threw her arms high as if in elation, then pitched forward onto a cosmetics counter.
More shots, more screams, legs scrambling past her in every direction; panic and pandemonium and still more gunfire. Her head still swiveling as if on a pivot, Randi snatched at her radio microphone.
“Shots fired! Macy’s, west entrance, upper level! We’ve got a shooter here! I can’t… I can’t locate where it’s coming from—”
The radio crackled in urgent reply, in words unintelligible to her.
But suddenly, framed in the bright half-oval of the store’s entryway, her eyes found him: twenty feet distant. Where there had once been a moving mass of people, now only a single silhouette stood.
As she stared, the figure leaned forward, fired one-two-three-four shots down into what Piper knew was the food court. Then he half-turned, the locked-back action of the pistol in a hand at shoulder-height, the now-empty magazine falling from it, in Piper’s mind everything moving in an absurd slow-motion. The figure outline pawed at its jacket-pocket, a re-load so he could shoot again, and—
—and she was on her feet, not remembering having arisen, already at a full sprint past the fallen, over some of them, it was too far, he had reloaded and snapped forward the pistol’s slide and had seen her and was turning now and oh God it’s pointing at my head!—
Piper scarcely saw the muzzle flash, heard only the first millisecond of the gunshot itself before it deafened her, felt only what seemed like a slight tug beneath her collarbone—
And then the impact, as she crashed into the figure with all the force and momentum and fury that an unlikely hero can muster, driving both of them back and over…
Falling, falling, falling. Her arms were locked in death-grip around her quarry; against the cheek pressed hard into his body, she recognized —and knew it to be incongruous— the feel of tweed.
Impact again; immeasurably more painful and this time accompanied by a brilliant explosion of light.
Piper sensed herself, rather than felt, rolling off the inert figure beneath her.
Half-rolling, rather; her progress stopped by the pedestal of a food-court table. The motionless figure beside her —yes, she told herself with an irrational satisfaction, it was tweed— blocked all but a thin sliver of her vision.
But in that space, past the broken body of Charles Alexander Clooney and crouched under a table of their own, Piper stared into the eyes —full-mooned in horror— of a young woman who clutched a pink blanket in tight embrace.
The blanket moved; a tiny hand emerged to grasp a mother’s blouse.
Piper Cameron had just enough time: she smiled, just as the soft, black darkness closed like an iris around her.
- ∞ -