Avalon International Breads
West Willis Street, Detroit, Michigan
December 24, 2013, 1:24 p.m.
Jack Henshaw’s fingers tap danced across the keyboard of his laptop, the clicking keys drowning out both the dulcet tones of Theodore the Chipmunk and the heavy rain lashing against the windows behind him. The plump cartoon rodent sang about wanting his two front teeth for Christmas, and all Henshaw wanted was a little quiet to finish his latest novel, overdue to his editors by a week. He knew the rain’s staccato bursts were outside his control.
He exhaled before he grabbed the latte next to him, the cup resplendent in Christmas colors. He took a long sip, feeling the still-warm creaminess surge down his throat. He put the cup down, licked his lips, and sighed heavily.
“Ahh, a Christmas Eve caramel latte. Love it,” he said before he returned his fingertips to the keyboard, his gaze to the final chapter. He hoped he could bring his story—currently at 95,000 words and counting—to its explosive denouement within the next few hours.
He continued typing.
Henshaw was relatively new to publishing, even though the gray near his temples and the lines under his eyes belied his age. He wore his dark hair short even after he had retired from the service, his rectangular-framed glasses resting comfortably against the bump on his nose. His body had morphed from a slim, well-toned physique to a doughy blob of flesh due to several years of inactivity. His hazel eyes blinked a lack of sleep away as they darted from the keyboard to the screen. He looked for any error that he could fix right now, such as the dreaded passive voice or the wordiness that he usually employed in his sentences following a lifetime of reading Peter Gammons’ rambling baseball prose in The Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated.
His story, though, was a fast-paced thriller, with a heroine that loved to kick ass and shoot first before asking her targets a few questions. The character, Jocelyn Jackson, had a knack of cornering the bad guys with her stunning good looks—a beauty that rivaled supermodel Kate Upton, except that her breasts were a quarter the size of the cover girl’s voluminous casabas—and gadgets that seemed culled from science fiction’s greatest stories. But the readers loved her, and Henshaw mixed in a bit of his past life into the stories to make them seem more believable: Henshaw was a former FBI agent, and after an accident in the field left him incapacitated, he had retired and took up the pen. He began writing books.
There was only one caveat the government requested—they wanted to make sure nothing classified went into his stories, such as privileged information or anything that would damage national security. Once finished, he had to email the manuscript to Washington. Once there, the feds read through and cleared every word before it went off to an editor in New York. And as he was nearly done with this book, his fifth in the series, it was almost time to do just that.
I just had to write about government conspiracies and terrorism, Henshaw thought as he typed. I could have written about zombies or romances, mysteries or fantasy. Hell, I could have even written about gay, sparkling vampires and made a bundle of cash that would have made my federal pension look puny. But no, I had to write what I know. I had to remain true to myself and to my ever-demanding muse, that whore, and I had to write about things that went boom in the night, or in the day.
And I need to make things go boom in this story soon, he thought, and leave it on a cliffhanger so that readers will buy the next book. Have to keep the money flowing, keep the readers interested, and keep the publisher happy.
He looked at the screen and grimaced. He had typed what he had just thought. He quickly tapped the backspace key, deleting the entire sentence that made no sense in the story.
Focus, you moron, he thought. Focus on your story. Remember your motto, your creed: Be prolific, or you’re going to go hungry. The gas and light company isn’t going to take a rubber check, and your looks certainly aren’t buying your clothes or putting food on the table.
With that in the back of his mind, Henshaw resumed typing, eager to write every writer’s favorite two words.
Several minutes passed. Customers entered, some talking on cell phones. Some sat in cushy chairs, pulling out a paperback from their bags, an eReader or a newspaper, and began reading. They held cups of coffee or another warm beverage in their hands, the thin cardboard surrounded by a sleeve of heavier cardboard. Other customers set up their laptops—Henshaw wasn’t sure if they were other writers or execs looking to park their hiney in a chair that wasn’t surrounded by tall cubicle walls on this last day prior to the holidays kicking in—before they headed to the back to grab a drink of their own, or a slice of warm artisan bread. Several carried large bags full of last-minute Christmas buys. He noticed they were already wrapped.
He sniffed and turned his eyes back to his work.
“Hey, Jack Henshaw,” a voice called a minute later.
He looked up. A grin automatically sprang on his face.
“Carl Scott, you scurvy bastard! How the hell are you?”
“I’m doing pretty damn good for an old war horse.”
The two old friends shook hands. Henshaw remained in his chair, while Scott dropped into a chair opposite. He saved his work and lowered the laptop screen so he could get a good look at his old high school classmate. Scott had put on a few pounds, but he still had the build of a high school basketball player that had worked extra hard to stay in shape. He had a bald head and carried a cup of Avalon’s house special coffee, the aroma reaching out to Henshaw and threatening to lift him out of the blasted contraption that gave him mobility.
“Working on a new book?” Scott asked.
“Yep. And it’s almost done, too.”
“What’s Double J getting herself in to this time?”
“You’re going to have to read the book to find out.”
“That’s going to be when, a year from now?”
This time, Henshaw nodded.
“Maybe a year and a half, depending on when Washington clears it and I do any edits they want. Sooner if the draft is clean.”
“You could always self-publish once the draft is clean,” Scott said.
Henshaw made a face as he blew a raspberry.
“But if I were to do that,” he scoffed, “who would validate my greatness as a writer? The readers?”
Scott shrugged. He sipped his coffee, then gestured toward the toward.
“Have you been getting around OK in that thing? You know, the rest of the class is worried about you.”
Henshaw grinned as he jiggled the wheels of his wheelchair.
“Tell them I’m fine. It works for me,” he said. “I had had enough of standing on my own two feet anyway. The terrorist bastard kind of granted my wish of being handicapped for the rest of my life.”
“Is that why you have a girl who’s slightly handicapped take care of the terrorists in your books?”
Henshaw’s sarcastic grin didn’t fade.
“If I told you that, I’d have to send JJ after you.”
“Always a kidder. How’s Marjorie?”
The grin on the author’s face faded this time.
“Marjorie and I split a few months back,” Henshaw said.
Scott’s grin turned sour. Jack Henshaw saw the watery pity in his eyes. Scott, as he knew, was always a sap for true love, even three-plus decades out of high school: he had married his high school sweetheart, the daughter of their English teacher—ironically, the man Henshaw kept in his heart as he brought Jocelyn’s world to life—and had several beautiful girls as a result, if he had properly kept up.
“It happens. I think she didn’t take me being in the hospital for a year well at all. And I had the feeling that while I was out in the field for weeks at a time, she was with another guy even when I had working legs and hips, and wasn’t peeing into catheters and shitting into pouches. So, I’m sure that my new condition and situation in life didn’t help her libido at all. She packed up, left.”
Scott shook his head.
“You file for divorce yet?”
“She did. She served me the papers as soon as she packed up. I signed them.”
“You didn’t touch the soft drinks, did you?”
“I may find inspiration at the bottom of a bottle or at the bottom of a coffee mug, but in that situation, drinking wouldn’t have helped. I wouldn’t have been able to write properly, and I would have hated myself afterward.” He reached for his latte and brought it close. “I see it this way, though: Marjorie will get her comeuppance soon enough. She’ll be incredibly old one day, her looks will go into the crapper. The younger guy she was fucking behind my back will leave her for someone more attractive and just as younger, and she’ll feel like I felt that day. Meanwhile, I’ll still be a sexy bitch.”
Scott lifted his coffee cup in a toast-like manner and nodded toward his old friend.
“Besides,” Henshaw continued, motioning to the laptop, “I’ve already killed her off in this book a few times.”
“You made your soon-to-be ex-wife as different characters?” Scott asked. Henshaw saw his friend, his eyes wide, trying to wrap his mind around the concept.
“No. All I did was when a death scene came up, I pictured her as the character that was about to die, and I pictured the look on her face when JJ pulled the trigger. Writing is great therapy, let me tell you,” he said with a wide smile.
“I’ve always wanted to know, so tell me: How did you come up with the name Jocelyn Jackson?”
“Like it, huh?”
“Jocelyn came to me when I saw Katrina Edwards at Bob James’ funeral back in 2007 or 2008. She showed me pictures of her daughter, Jocelyn. I thought it wasn’t totally original, but it would serve my prose purposes well.”
“Katrina was a looker back in high school.”
“She’s still a looker, if five years ago is a good barometer,” Henshaw said. “And the last name, Jackson, came to me from the old cop that patrolled the college when we were kids.”
He watched as Scott’s face lit up with recognition.
“I remember him. Bald guy, kind of husky.”
“That’s the one. I put the two together, and it was as if I had a license to print money.”
“There’s nothing wrong with literary gold.”
“Not at all. I hate to cut this short, Carl. I have to get Jocelyn to the end so I can go reward myself with some Chinese.”
“Chinese food? I always wondered how the authors I read reward themselves after they finish a book.”
Henshaw showed gleaming teeth.
“No, the masseuse down the block. This little Chinese girl, she can’t be more than 25. She walks the mile in just under ten minutes and not once does she leave my back. If there’s a Heaven, my friend, I want her to come with me.”
The two shook hands before Scott left. Henshaw returned to his writing, sipping his latte before he resumed typing.
An hour later, he had completed the first draft. He had sent Jocelyn after the terrorist, who had taken to hiding in a mosque somewhere in New York City, close to the World Trade Center site. Jocelyn managed to avert a catastrophe by killing the terrorist with a well-placed bullet between the eyes, and doing so, as he wrote, without a hair out of place or a bead of perspiration marring her skin, which had a strong resemblance to café au lait.
A grin slid across his face as he typed the final six letters of his manuscript.
“The end,” he said, before he exhaled sharply. He closed his eyes and slid his fingers behind his glasses, into the deep crevasses underneath them. He rubbed the pain of the glasses’ weight away. “Another book done.” He let his body slump back into his chair, feeling relief sag into his shoulders. He grinned as he felt the weight of the world leave his body, as if he were the Greek King Sisyphus and he had finally made that pesky stone stay in place.
He grabbed the cup and downed the rest of his latte, ice cold by now. He swallowed it down despite the lack of warmth and twisted his features as he did so. He reached over and, with his thumb and forefinger, clicked Control and S, saving the work for the last time as a first draft.
Henshaw contemplated getting another latte for the long ride home to nearby Algonac—a family member drove him to his doctor’s appointments and to the coffee shop, even though he hated putting them out like that—but instead he leaned back and looked at those final two words on the screen. The End. He thought about every little thing that went into them: Two thousand words a day, six days a week for the past few months, all in the lead-up to those all-important words. The hours he spent typing away, opening up a vein in his hands as he performed his daily tasks, giving a little bit of himself with every keystroke, as if he bled himself dry on the keyboard. The character development, the plot that he came up with at 3:30 in the morning after it awakened him from a deep, semi-peaceful slumber, all of it. All went into the story, as if wringing tears from a washcloth.
And there was also the fact that his wife had left him just before he started writing this book. Instead of wallowing in his grief, he chose to plow right through it, using the 270-plus-page manuscript and his made-up world as a distraction to his real-world problems.
Now, with the novel done, he wondered what he would use as a distraction until he began plotting and writing the sixth book.
Henshaw’s lips twisted in dismay.
Everything I’ve ever done, Marjorie, he thought, I did for you. For us. I went out into the field to keep you and the rest of the country safe, and this is how you’ve repaid me. Henshaw demanded tears to spring from his eyes, but his body didn’t respond.
It didn’t respond to much these days.
Henshaw firmed his jaw and leaned back over his computer. He X’d out of Microsoft Word and opened his email program, then clicked a new message. He attached the document with a few simple clicks, addressed the email, and, after letting the cursor hover over the final step, he took a deep breath.
He clicked send, then exhaled.
That’s that, he thought. Time to make sure they received it.
Henshaw grabbed his cell phone and dialed a number he knew all too well. It rang once before he heard the telltale signs of voices in the background coming through on the other end.
“Central Intelligence,” the voice on the other end said.
“Get me the Director,” he said. His tone drew on a reserve tank of energy that wasn’t in use a second ago.
The call went on hold without the drab, electronic elevator music in the background. Several customers left the coffee shop as they wrapped scarves around their faces to stave off Detroit’s chill winds that blew off Lake St. Clair to the northeast. A young couple carrying a small bundled-up child entered and headed back to the counter, the Arctic air swirling in the vestibule. The baby, who wore a purple winter coat fashioned like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, squealed with delight.
Henshaw couldn’t help but smile at the sight.
“Director Dupuis,” a cold, feminine voice said through the line. Henshaw blinked himself back to the present.
“Alex, it’s Jack Henshaw,” he said.
“Hey there, Mr. Author.” To Henshaw’s ears, it sounded as if Alexandra Dupuis had just applied an instant-yet-rare smile upon hearing his voice. “How’re things in the Motor City?”
“Cold and wet, yet I can barely feel any of it,” he replied. “And in our fine capital?”
“Just about the same, minus the wet. I can see the sun reflecting off the snow. No melting, but that’s what we get for wanting a white Christmas every year. Are you feeling well?”
“I’m feeling like George R.R. Martin had a balding lovechild with J.K. Rowling.”
“That’s great. What do you have for me?”
“I have a finished manuscript ready for a well-paid yet underworked government fact checker to take a little look-see. It should be in your email, if Daly hasn’t blocked large incoming files yet.”
“Let me take a look,” Alex said.
Henshaw heard several keys clicking.
“Yep, it looks like I have it,” she said. “I’m going to send it over to the fact check—”
A tremendous boom ripped through the rear of the coffee shop, out of Henshaw’s sight. Soon, smoke and flames tore through that section, the smoke billowing rapidly into the cafe. Henshaw, feeling warm, immediately heard people screaming, even though it came through his ear canal at a softer timbre than he would have preferred.
“Oh, shit!” he said, and he quickly pulled his USB drive out of his laptop. He dropped his cell into his lap and maneuvered his wheelchair away from the table. He left his laptop. There was no time to pack it up.
Henshaw made his way to the exits along with several other surviving patrons. He couldn’t hear their footsteps over the ringing in his ears, and he knew there was a problem. He grabbed his cell phone as soon as he rolled out into the rain. What remained of his hair plastered itself to his scalp.
“Alex, are you still there?”
“Yes, I am. Give me a sit-rep. Do I have to call Detroit PD?”
Grimacing slightly, Henshaw pressed his phone up against his ear. The freezing late December rain hit his skin like tiny needles.
“Alex? I can’t hear you. If you’re still there, get someone on the phone and call EMS. There are a lot of people standing out in the rain, and I can’t tell if they’re hurt.”
“How many people?”
This time, Henshaw’s face grew twisted in mortal frustration while smoke continued pouring out of the coffee shop. He discovered that his heart was rather frustrated, too, its beat resembling a Mariachi band—a Mariachi band that played La Cucaracha rather rapidly.
“Ugh—I can’t fucking hear. Alex, if you’re listening, pound the keys a few times. Hopefully that’ll help me—”
He immediately heard two long tones as he kept the phone pressed hard against his head. Once again, it came out softer, but he sighed knowing that she heard him.
“OK, great. Alex, the situation is grave. There was an explosion in the back of Avalon International Breads, West Willis location. We have an unknown amount of fatalities and injuries inside. Outside in the rain, it’s myself and about ten other customers. Get fire and EMS here on the double.”
He couldn’t hear, but he hoped that what he didn’t hear was Alex turning to an aide and barking out orders in her patented no-nonsense approach, an approach that reminded him of an old U.S. Army general he used to know.
“Jack, are you still there?” Alex yelled.
“This time I could hear you.”
“Detroit EMS, Police and Fire are on their way.”
“Is there anyone else alive inside?”
Henshaw bit the inside of his cheek. Soon, he tasted copper filling his mouth—and at the same time, he felt something wet slipping down the left side of his forehead.
I hope to God that’s sweat, he thought. He felt his heart thrumming against his breastbone.
“I don’t think so.” He felt his breath rattling his teeth, and the air tasted sour to him as he inhaled. “Alex, I may be bleeding.”
“Did anything hit you?”
“Not that I know of. I don’t remember.”
“Check,” Alex said.
Henshaw wiped his forehead and looked, finding only clear liquid slipping into the faint grooves of his fingers. An engine revved close by before tires squealed to a stop.
“It’s sweat,” he said as if sighing.
“Is that EMS I hear already?”
He turned his head and found that a black car, the rain dancing across the tinted windshield, had pulled up to the curb. It was a non-descript sedan, and the rain had washed whatever mud and dirt and snow that its wheel wells had accumulated over time. The passenger side door opened.
“No, just some car. It’s not even a cruiser. I’ll find out what they want,” Henshaw said.
“Tread lightly, Jack. Remember that you’re off-duty now—”
“Move along from here,” he said as he rolled the wheelchair toward the sedan, his phone still clutched in his right hand. “We’re going to need this area for emergency vehicles!”
A large, beefy man in all black emerged from the car, as if light had chased away a shadow. His head was clean-shaven with nary a follicle showing on the smooth pate, and he wore silver sunglasses that looked as if he had stolen them from Arnold. He didn’t flinch as the rain caromed off his skull. The man stared at him for several moments before he even looked up at the others huddled together near the front entrance, even with the potential danger of another bomb going off. Two other men hopped out of the sedan, and Henshaw immediately felt the blood leave his face, his flesh tingling, as he saw the AR-15’s they carried in their hands.
“Hey, don’t move another step closer,” Henshaw screamed. He pointed an accusatory finger at the one on the right, his phone now held between his thumb and the meaty part of his palm.
“Walt, Richie,” the thick-bodied man said casually without taking his eyes off the author. “Blast the others.”
The others behind Henshaw gasped before the two men raised their semi-automatic weapons and pulled the triggers in rapid succession, pops filling the air. No one moved as the bullets riddled their bodies, before they dropped to the sidewalk. Groans rented the air. Some of them didn’t speak, nor could they even if they wanted.
Henshaw’s jaw flapped open, but he could not produce sounds. The sounds of the bullets leaving the gun rung in his ears, and combined with the blast, he almost couldn’t hear the bald-headed man’s footsteps as he approached. He felt his back stiffen as the man leaned in on him, putting his hands down on the armrests of his wheelchair. He brought his face within a few inches of Henshaw’s before he reached down and applied the brakes. He was close enough that Henshaw smelled the beer on his breath. And even though he was somewhat of a connoisseur of the victuals himself, he couldn’t place the aroma that swept from between the man’s teeth.
“How you doing, Jack?” he said. “Nice weather we’re having, eh?”
Henshaw shuddered. He heard every word, and even the rain sounded amplified now.
“How do you know who I am?”
The man grinned and reached into his jacket with his right hand.
“I’ve been hired to kill you,” he said.
Henshaw caught a glint of gold before the man wound up and drove his metal-laced knuckles deep into his skull before he could say another word.
He only saw black as he tumbled out of his wheelchair.
At Langley, Alex Dupuis hung on the line as Jack Henshaw, her old friend, approached the new arrival. She felt a cold shiver squirrel its way up her spine as he said that it wasn’t a police cruiser, then moved her butt closer to the edge of her seat. She felt her heart beating with a quickened pace, and she felt her skin flush with heat that wasn’t there a second ago.
Be careful, Jack, she thought as she heard his wheelchair squeaking away.
There were several tense moments of silence right before Alex heard the long, crisp sound of a gun firing off several rounds.
“Jack!” Alex screamed. Half a heartbeat later, two aides entered, but Alex paid them no heed. “Jack, answer me damn it!”
There was no answer, but then she heard a voice laced with evil intent. She didn’t know why it sounded like that, but Alex immediately prayed.
Please God, she thought, don’t let him hurt Jack.
Yet when she heard the magic words spill from the man’s lips—“I’ve been hired to kill you.”—Alex felt her eyes widen. She shot out of her chair, which collided with the wall behind her.
Then she heard a crumpled moan before a tinkling sound made the line seemingly go dead. But she then heard two heavy footsteps, then a pause—then a laugh that seemed to originate from the chuckler’s feet.
Another shiver wriggled its way up from her middle. She leaned over the desk, her left hand holding her steady. The aides approached, ready to assist her. She felt sweat coating her brow, as if someone—this creepy bastard in Detroit, perhaps—had plunged her and held her in a pool of her own cold perspiration.
It was when the man spoke again that Alex, the usually stoic Alex, was almost ready to break.
“Take this American piece of shit to the car. We need to get out of here and across the border before the authorities shut everything down,” the man said. “Then blow the front. Be quick about it! Cover the dead with debris. They’re just filthy American scum.”
Alex’s mind reeled as she slammed herself back down into her chair, which squealed with the return of her weight. The aides spoke to her but she didn’t hear them, so concentrated on the call she was—she didn’t know if she was the only “witness” to what had happened—that everything else was just white noise to her ears. She heard some jostling of metal—his wheelchair, perhaps, she thought—before she heard the unmistakable sound of people counting to three.
In French, though? Alex thought.
Then, just as quickly as everything had begun, it had ended with silence, before she heard car doors slam. Tires squealed as they peeled away.
Alex then remembered to breathe. She ran her tongue over dried lips.
“Madame Director, are you all right?”
Alex blinked tears away as she looked up into the eyes of her aide.
“I’m fine, but Jack Henshaw isn’t. Get Detroit PD back on the line and tell them that an ex-FBI agent is believed missing. They’ll find his wheelchair—”
Another boom echoed through the line, this one closer than the first one that she had heard. Its suddenness made Alex jump.
She closed her eyes and tucked her chin toward her throat as she heard many pieces of something—and she had a good idea what it was—rained down around Jack Henshaw’s phone. A loud thunk preceded silence.
“—underneath the rubble.” She opened her eyes and put her phone down in the cradle. She knew she wouldn’t hear anything else. She looked to the aide. “And after you get off the phone with them, call the White House. Inform the President that I’m coming over and that his secretary should clear his schedule for the next couple of hours. Tell them that something’s come up, something that will require his full attention and that I’ll inform him personally. Have someone get that call transferred to a disc. He’s going to need to hear this to believe it.”
The aide nodded and departed, leaving Alex alone—alone with thoughts that she never thought she would ever have.
No, she thought. I’ve had them before. I’ve had them with Jaclyn. I’ve worried that she hasn’t been able to handle a particular assignment, each one coming with a little extra degree of difficulty, yet she handles everything with grace. She handles everything with the attitude of, “Okay Alex, give me something a little tougher next time.” She is battle-hardened, and I wonder what happens when she’s done with her assignments. Sure, I spent time with her after she returned from Las Vegas, Tom in tow, before she went off again to find the men that had kidnapped Tasha, but she didn’t even seem fazed that she had just stood toe-to-toe with a terrorist and a deranged senator. She was determined. And then she had the incidents in Atlanta, which had me concerned. But once again, she handled it easily.
Alex inhaled, holding the breath for a few moments before letting it out slowly.
Right now, I’m worried more about the status of an old colleague who may be thrust into more than he bargained for, more so than anything Jaclyn has ever seen in her past. Jaclyn’s a tough girl. Jack may be tough, but he’s seen better days.
Alex stood and grabbed her coat, then made her way to the door.
I just hope the president’s ready for yet another disaster on his watch, she thought as she walked, her stride full of purpose, to the limo.
Links to purchase LITERARY AGENT are on Sean's website, www.seansweeneyauthor.com!