This Free Read includes the beginning of my new book, Fallout. (Nominated for the 2012 Minnesota Book Awards) If you’d like to “test drive” the first 50 pages of my new book for free, contact me through my email and I’ll send them to you with no strings attached:
(Scroll down to read from my first book, Reprisal)
Marko knew if they caught him, they’d kill him.
He had been hidden behind locked doors in the basement of a church, the nerve center of the operation geared up for the End. The preparations had taken years of networking across the country. Infiltration of the plants to discover the security codes and learn the lay outs and the secret consultations with engineers to decide where to place the charges, had been a struggle for all of them.
Marko had hoped to slip out the side door of the church undetected. Before he could reach his car to escape, someone burst through the door and came after him. He panicked and ran. It was probably Menendez, the most violent member of the security detail hired by the church.
Marko slowed as he reached his car. Did he have time to unlock the door, get inside, and escape before he was caught? No. He veered off toward the long street that ran into the small town of Hamel, Minnesota. I was a quiet area, except for the closed bars and a strip joint. Maybe he could out run Menendez.
This late at night, the town sank into quiet sleep. Marko knew there was a Super America station still open at the far end. If he could make it there, he’d be safe.
He ran harder, hearing his leather shoes slap on the damp pavement. Earlier, a soft rain had drizzled over the streets. He felt the burn in his lungs, clawing for more air as he lunged ahead. Somewhere to Marko’s left a dog barked twice. When he dared to glance back, he saw Menendez gaining on him. the yellow light from a street lamp glinted off the silver gun in Menendez’ hand.
Marko dodged around a parked car and up across a lawn that smelled of wet grass. He slipped but gained traction as he ducked behind the only house on the street, hoping to lose Menendez.
His mind darted back to better times, when he and Menendez and the others from the church had come down from Canada for the first “test run” to see if they could make it. Marko remembered the dangerous journey across the border at night and how they had traveled down through the lake region of Minnesota. In the morning he’d seen men out in fishing boats, pulling golden walleyes out of the clear water. The fish had flopped and jerked in an effort to get free of the hook–just as Marko did now.
He curved around the back end of the small house, saw an open alley and ran for it.
Between the house and alley, Marko hit a low chain-link fence. It was too tall to jump over so he stopped to climb up the edge and fell over the far side. He gasped for breath, certain his chest would explode. He had to get up and run. Feeling in his pocket to make sure he still had the flash drive, he scrambled to his feet. Menendez grunted as he rounded the corner of the house close behind. Marko spurted toward the alley.
Two years earlier, it had all seemed so right to him. A friend had introduced Marko to the church that seemed to offer answers for all the things he knew were wrong in the world. It was a small congregation, and their secretiveness had startled Marko at first, until he realized that their message caused people outside the church to become upset. But without a family, he had found warmth and friendship there, so when they had asked him to use his software skills for their plan, he had readily agreed.
And he agreed with their message that the End Times were upon them. Americans were too consumed by material matters and hedonism to recognize the signs, but the church saw them all. Marko felt reassured to be one of the “chosen” who would survive.
But when the plans had mushroomed across the country, he became worried. Security increased, and they forced people like Marko to finish their work. Marko discovered the plans were more destructive than he had ever imagined. The leaders blackmailed him with threats of going to law enforcement if Marko didn’t cooperate. He was scared for several months until something inside him snapped, and he knew he must act first to protect himself. He stole the flash drive with all the details of the network’s plan.
It was the only thing he could use with law enforcement to strike a deal with them and be lenient to Marko.
Marko gained speed down the alley. Without street lights, he could fade into the shadows. After years behind desks, he knew his body was out of shape and couldn’t run this hard for very long. If he could elude Menendez for two more blocks, he’d reach the gas station.
He tried to push himself faster, hearing the gasps from his lungs pumping harder. His head hurt. Behind him, Marko heard the splash of Menendez’ boots through the puddles in the alley.
Coming out of the alley, Marko leaped toward the street again. He had to run between two deserted buildings, turn hard to the right around a bar called “Inn Kahoots,” and sprint one more block to safety. Sweat dripped into his eyes, making it hard to see. Long before, his glasses had fallen off his slippery face. That made it difficult for him to see well.
His legs screamed in pain and his chest heaved up and down. In the darkness next to the last building, he tripped over something on the ground. His face scraped across the pavement, shredding his skin. He knew Menendez was close behind. Marko struggled up, found his footing, and lunged toward the open street in front of the building.
He heard the slap of Menendez’ arms along his chest. Marko saw the Super America ahead. Maybe he’d make it.
He dodged to the right. He saw a man and a woman in a short pink dress stagger out the front door of the strip joint. He meant to avoid them, but in his exhausted state he smacked into her. People screamed and Marko fell, rolling across the pavement to stop on his side. He saw a crushed Budweiser can at the curb. Marko struggled to his feet and heard a flat pop that echoed off the building behind him. He could see the golden yellow lights reaching out to him from the windows of the Super America. He would make it.
That’s when something slammed into the back of his head and threw him forward. Marko had just a moment to look across the street again and see the golden fish getting free of the hook before he died.
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After making cut from just above the left ear across the forehead to just above the right ear, she rolled the skin up over the top of his head to expose the skull. She smiled at the beautiful glistening glow of young bone.
This was her favorite part.
The skull was such a distinct color and a Divine feat of perfect engineering. The pieces came together in thin jagged lines as tightly as the ancient Greek architects did with the marble in the Parthenon. If her assistant wasn’t standing next to her, she’d love to take off her glove and stroke the smooth, cool surface.
Although a small woman, Dr. Helen Wong was proud of her strength, particularly in her fingers. She reached for the Stryker saw and spoke into the microphone hanging above her head, “I am preparing to cut the skull laterally to expose the brain.” On a boy this young, the skull should come apart easily; she could always resort to brute force if necessary.
She sighed. It was a pity to destroy the beauty before her. The saw whined and Dr. Wong started her cut.
In spite of all the modern tools, Dr. Wong knew that fingers were often jut as effective. And what difference did it make to this lifeless body? Because murder was alleged, Dr. Wong performed the autopsy.
She worked as the Chief Medical Examiner for Hennepin County in Minneapolis. Her job was to determine the medical cause of death. She felt the pressure from local law enforcement, the FBI, and the prosecutor to expedite her findings.
She’d already read the police report summary and knew about the case from the media. More than a dozen young Somali men had disappeared without explanation from Minneapolis and St. Paul. A few had shown up in Somalia as “freedom fighters” and had been killed. The rest were still missing. The victim in this case had returned for some unknown reason only to end up dead in Minneapolis. The suspect in custody was charged with first degree murder.
As to the body slanting down on the aluminum table before her, there wasn’t any doubt really, as to the cause of death. The young man’s throat gaped open like a quartered watermelon from a cut that started below one ear and slashed across to a spot just below the other ear. The laceration extended down through all the tissue and muscle in the throat to reach the spine. Except for the bone in the spine to stop the weapon, the killer might have severed the head.
Unusually deep, she pondered. Strange. Why? What kind of person would do that? She momentarily felt sorry for the Public Defender who had to represent the killer.
“Turn in the tox results yet?” she barked at her assistant and instantly regretted her tone of voice. She’d ordered the minimum tests to be run. He nodded in response. She hurried to finish, mindful of her appointment with the dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School later that afternoon.
Dr. Wong felt she had been cheated. Her male predecessor had filled the Medical Examiner’s position for the county government and, at the same time, was a professor at the medical school. It meant a double salary and much more professional visibility. She was determined to get the same arrangement for herself during her appointment.
She knew the local prosecutors called her “Chopsticks” behind her back because of the crude surgical techniques commonly used in autopsies. The racism angered her, but she performed expertly and when necessary, she testified in court convincingly. Excellence was her defense.
Prior to opening the skull, Dr. Wong completed the external exam quickly and noted she found no identifying marks on the body. No other trauma, except for the lacerated neck, presented itself. Since the cause of death was clear to her, she scanned the body quickly. She studied the young black boy’s skin that had turned a shade of gray, like ashes.
She probed along the body with her long fingers. Underneath the latex gloves, her hands looked delicate but hid an immense strength that showed only when she squeezed muscled parts like the biceps.
The feet were heavily calloused, unlike most other people who lived in Minnesota who wore shoes twelve months of the year. They seemed to be tinged the color of a rotten plum. Hard to tell what that meant since the blood had been drained from his body earlier. She preferred performing autopsies on lighter skinned bodies since trauma to the underlying tissues was easier to spot.
One thing bothered her: the same red discolorations covered his palms. Unusual. What caused it?
Dr. Wong was in a hurry and she assumed they were simply abrasions, which she noted when speaking into the mic hanging above her. She thought they could’ve been the results of a struggle. It didn’t matter since it had nothing to do with the cause of death.
After the exterior exam, she hurried to perform the usual Y incision in the chest. To assist the team, the autopsy table had a body block, a plastic brick, which rested under the body lifting the chest area in a high, curved arc while the arms and neck fell away. The incision traveled down the length of the body. Dr. Wong preferred to use a good pair of garden shears instead of the expensive autopsy equipment. The shears were stronger and cheaper. A small sheen of perspiration popped out from her forehead.
She measured the subcutaneous fat of the abdomen. Looked at the peritoneal surface. She found both lungs adherent to their respective pleural cavities. After her visual check, Dr. Wong used her fingers to feel around inside the opened cavity. Next, she began to remove the organs. They would be observed, weighed, and sometimes sliced like a loaf of bread for further analysis. In this case, she saw no need for anything further than weighing.
The contents of the stomach revealed the remains of onions, tomatoes, meat, and what looked like pie crust. Dr. Wong and her assistant had become pretty good at guessing what the person had just eaten, It was like a game for them.
“Gyros sandwich?” the assistant said.
Dr. Wong chuckled. “I don’t know.” She sifted through the contents with a scalpel. “There’s no pita bread. Looks like some kind of fried meat, not grilled. This is a new one, I guess.”
She spoke into the microphone while examining the heart, “The atria and auricular appendages appear normal. The valves appear normal in circumference and are thin and delicate.” She droned on until the exam of each of the organs was completed including the kidneys, prostate, coronary artery, spleen, liver, pancreas, and thyroid.
Dr. Wong could do this in her sleep. While speaking, she thought ahead to the meeting with Dr. Johnson at the University. When she set her sights on a goal, she seldom missed. Still, her success wasn’t guaranteed yet.
As she lifted the brain out of the skull, she spoke aloud, “The vessels at the base of the brain appear to be intact. There appears to be a very subtle contusion of the right temporal tip in an area measuring approximately 1.5 X 1.5 cm.”
Dr. Wong wondered which outfit she should wear for the meeting with Dr. Johnson. What color would be best? Something serious but also not too formal. She glanced at the sweep hand of the digital clock on the wall.
“Come on Henry; we’ve go to finish up,” she told her assistant.
“If you have to run, I’ll sew it up and clean things,” he offered.
“Thanks. I’ve got the meeting this afternoon.” She turned back to the mic. Dr. Wong spoke again to indicate the time they finished then stepped back. She’d wash thoroughly but quickly and still have plenty of time.
Outside the exam room, she stripped the gown off, face mask, protective glasses, and gloves, throwing them in the cleaning receptacle. Into the bathroom for washing and a quick check on her hair and makeup, then she’d leave to go home and change.
Dr. Wog climbed the stairs from the basement lab to the modern office complex that housed her office, three assistants, and the support staff. A skylight in the middle of the space provided welcome square of sunshine, especially during the long Minnesota winters.
Outside, the warm sun on her face reminded her that she needed to start using sun block in her makeup again. Uncovered from a layer of winter snow, the ground around the office revealed new mysteries popping up in the greediness of growth.
Dr. Wong climbed into her Lincoln Navigator and sped out of the lot.
Like the dirty clothing she’d left in the cleaning bin, she left any thoughts of the routine autopsy behind.
Later, of course, she had recognized her mistake.
But then, how could she be blamed? The year she started medical school it didn’t even exist.
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The small pox virus, variola, proved to be
one of the most successful killers in
human history. Thanks to a farsighted
world-wide program, by 1979 the virus had
been eradicated from the planet. Vaccine
production stopped. Human immunity
against the disease waned year to year to the
point that today, everyone in the world is
defenseless and susceptible to infection.
Although never convicted of a crime, she had to go to jail.
Zehra Hassan, one of dozens of Public Defenders in Minneapolis, forced herself out of the office and down Fourth Avenue toward the concrete building known as the Public Service Facility. In spite of the bureaucratic name, it was still a jail. She never liked going there and especially today, dreaded the first interview with her new client.
She’d been appointed to defend the terrorist accused of killing a missing Somali boy who’d returned to Minneapolis. Zehra remembered her first appearance with him. One of the arresting cops who was a friend of hers, approached her after the hearing.
“Watch this guy, Z. He’s bad news.”
When even the cops were worried about a defendant, that concerned Zehra.
Hot sun pressed like a weight across her back. For May, this was unusually warm. Bright light glanced from the tall glass buildings surrounding her. Heat rising off the sidewalk clutched at her legs.
Zehra opened one of the doors to the PSF and thought of the air conditioned reward on the other side. Once in, she still felt clammy and hot.
“Hey Joe,” she called to the deputy sheriff at the metal detector. “What’s up with the air?”
Joe grinned when he saw Zehra. “The computer’s aren’t programmed right. They tell us they’re workin’ on it…”
Zehra took a deep breath, patted her damp forehead, and headed for the elevator that would take her down two floors into the suffering and struggles of the inmates below. Pulling the back of her suit down over her hips, she slowed and waited.
When she’d first moved to Minnesota years ago, she thought of it as a tundra. “Siberia with family restaurants,” one of the film-making Coen brothers had said after they left themselves.
Certainly, the first winter matched her expectations. Then she experienced her first spring. Formally hidden under snow banks, caches of unexpected objects appeared. People uncovered life in a variety of colors with a diversity of animals and plants all greedy for new growth. The spring thaw also uncovered other odd things: sinners; unexplained mysteries; and even a dead body on occasion.
The elevator came and Zehra rode alone as it descended. After graduating from law school and working in the prosecutor’s office for a few years, she’d switched to the defense side. One of the necessary difficulties of the job involved meeting clients who were dangerous enough to be held in custody.
When the elevator opened, Zehra rushed out into a small room with a beige tile floor. The bright fluorescent light above caused her to see a metallic reflection of herself in one of the thick windows in the wall. She liked her face, her large eyes that were hazel–unusual for someone with her dark complexion. Thick black hair curled around the edges of her chin. Then, there was her nose–too long. A remnant of her distant relatives from Iran.
The heat made her chest feel clammy and damp.
When Zehra moved forward to press the button on the intercom, a deputy looked up at her and waved in recognition. She heard the loud metal clank as the lock shot open in the door. She pulled on the cold handle, walked through it, and turned left.
Zehra’s parents were a part of the flood of educated people who fled to the U.S. after the fall of the Shah for more opportunity, a chance to become naturalized citizens, have children, and work hard.
She’d grown up in Dallas but moved to Utah for college, mostly because she loved to snowboard. After graduating, she moved to Minnesota to attend law school, followed by her parents after they wilted in the hot weather of Texas’ summers.
Zehra walked through the thick dead air of the jail toward an interview room. She missed the colors of her garden when she was down here. She found an open room and stepped into it.
Two metal chairs sat beside a plastic table. She set her briefcase on it next to a red button, the size of her palm, which protruded from the wall. If she hit the button, several deputies would charge into the room.
Zehra pulled out the thin file she had on the new client. It read: State of Minnesota vs. Ibrahim El-Amin. With the amount of publicity generated by the disappearance of many young Somali men from the Twin Cities, the police and FBI had worked overtime to discover what happened. The murder seemed to be the first crack in all the cases, since this victim had also disappeared earlier like the others. No one knew why he’d come back or how.
Zehra stood–she never liked to meet new clients sitting down. She had to control the meeting. Not that she believed much of what defendants told her. So many lied, made excuses, denied, and minimized their behavior. The savvy ones threw in a few truths like glue, to try and hold together their preposterous stories.
Around the control desk, she saw two deputies escorting El-Amin toward the second door in the room.
He had closely cut curly black hair and a short, flat nose. Dark skin that shone under the lights and a ragged beard. A short man, he walked slowly, erect and proud. He wore the jail’s private label clothing line–an orange jump suit. The deputy pushed on his arm. El-Amin jerked it away and came through the door.
He paused. His eyes rose slowly and looked at Zehra. They glistened black and focused, surrounded by deep cavities of smudged gray making him look old.
Even though they were narrow, Zehra saw wiry strength in his shoulders.
Behind El-Amin, the door closed and the lock scraped through, metal against metal. Zehra nodded. “Hello, Mr. El-Amin. I’m Zehra Hassan, your lawyer.” She held her hand at her side.
He didn’t respond. Continued to stare at her. His eyes probed her face, shoulders, chest, then circled her hips and legs. She’d seen this before–the Stare, although it usually came from the street gangsters.
But this defendant was different. He wasn’t a gangster and at 26, was older. She held his gaze for moment and then broke it off.
They both sat and El-Amin used his left hand to push himself away from her. He had strong hands with thick calluses that edged each finger.
Zehra took a deep breath. Considering she had ambitions to be the first Muslim judge in Minnesota, defending a Muslim terrorist wouldn’t help her career at all.
“I’ve been appointed to represent you in your murder case,” Zehra began. “You speak English?”
He bobbed his head.
“First, we should talk about bail. Is there anyone who could afford to come up with some money..?”
“I want a male lawyer,” he demanded.
She’d heard this before, too. “Sorry, you get me.”
“Are you Muslim?”
“In my country, women are not allowed to work like this. It is contrary to the Qur’an.”
“Well, this isn’t your country and women do work like this here,” Zehra said. “Do you want to talk about your case or religion? ‘Cause if it’s religion, I’m leaving.”
He leaned back and refused to speak. His nostrils flared as if he smelled something.
Zehra took a deep breath. Most defendants were desperate to get out of custody. Not this one. And the bullshit about Muslims really set her on edge.
As an American Muslim born here, she knew the difficulties faced by people like her–trying to be good Americans and good Muslims at the same time. It was the discrimination and the crap suffered by Muslim women that upset her and led to law school. Most Americans knew more about micro-breweries than Islam and how close its theology related to Judeo-Christianity. Along with other females in the U.S, Zehra was passionate to modernize the role of Muslim women.
And here she faced the very problem they all faced–a radical, extremist who probably hated all women and had probably killed an innocent young man.
She thought to herself. Was there a way she could dump this case? Could she beg a male, Christian colleague to take this bronco?
“Okay. Let’s look at the Complaint,” Zehra sighed. She pulled out a document written by the prosecutor that alleged facts to make the defendant guilty of the charge of first degree murder.
“It says that on March 19th a witness was standing on an open porch at the back end of the Horn of Africa deli on Cedar Avenue. The witness saw a young black man come out of the patio next to the deli through a wooden gate in the fence below the witness.
“Just as they guy got through the gate, another dark man, wearing a mask of some sort and identified as you, came up behind the younger one, grabbed his forehead with the left hand. With the right hand, he cut the younger one’s throat with a knife and the killer fled.”
Zehra glanced at El-Amin. His expression remained frozen.
“A week later,” she continued reading, “a confidential reliable informant, a CRI, reported to police you were at a coffee shop near the crime scene and bragged about a knife you had. You bragged that you ‘brought a little lamb to Allah.’ When police executed a search warrant at your apartment, they found a knife and shirt. Both had been cleaned but forensics later determined the victim’s blood showed on both items.”
Under brows hooded low, his eyes moved from the paper to Zehra’s eyes again. He crossed his muscled arms over his chest.
A creepy feeling crabbed its way up her back. At this point, after reading all the accusatory facts, most defendants raved about how they were “all lies” and insisted they were innocent.
Still, Zehra’s training as a defense lawyer asserted itself and she started to see holes in the State’s case. “When the cops did that line-up with the witness and he picked you, it’s highly suggestive. The light was bad during the crime and after, as well. I don’t know if it’ll stand up to cross…”
“It’s not important. There are bigger things.”
“What things? You don’t think a murder one case isn’t important?”
“You are not qualified.”
“Damn right. If I could pull the plug on you, I would so fast…”
“I have a right to a lawyer, don’t I?” His lips lifted above white teeth.
“You got one.”
“You…are a woman and an infidel.”
“Aw…shit.” Zehra moved her chair back. It felt hard to breathe around El-Amin, as if there were a vacuum sucking the air out of the room. She wanted to get out of this case. Besides, he made her feel uneasy.
Mostly, he stood for all that she hated and fought against.
El-Amin raised his arm with a finger pointed up in the air. “Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other,” he quoted from the Qur’an.
Zehra felt a drop of sweat course down her neck. The stuffy room became claustrophobic. She breathed faster. “Don’t quote me that crap. I know the Qur’an.”
He interrupted her. “I have the right to a trial and I can command you to have one.”
“You have the right to a trial.”
“I want a jury trial with a new lawyer.”
“You’ll get your trial,” she shouted at him.
“I did it.”
Zehra’s words caught in her throat. “You killed the Somali?”
“It was necessary.”
She stammered, “Well…I could talk to the prosecutor about a deal…”
“Do not talk to them.”
Zehra never had a defendant admit guilt but still demand a trial. What was wrong with this idiot? She shoved her chair back and stood. “I’ve had it. I’m out of here.”
“I know that I have a right to represent myself.”
Zehra felt the anger rising in her until a thought struck her–she might be able to get out of the case. If he insisted on defending himself, she could be relieved of representing him.
She started to stuff the papers into her briefcase, not worrying about the order. The room felt small, stuffy. She wished she were drinking a cup of tea and working with her garden plants.
El-Amin stood and leaned toward her. He smelled of onions. Through gritted teeth, he said, “I will not have anything to do with you. I will be disgraced.” His eyes shone with fury. “You do not wear hijab, you have bare legs. It is not of the law of Allah.”
Zehra snapped. She jammed her finger into his face. “Listen, you jerk. I’d be happy to never talk to you again. And don’t tell me about the law of Allah. I know it better than you do.” She stopped for a moment. “Have you ever read the Qur’an yourself or do you let others interpret it for you?” Her shouts bounced off the close walls.
“A woman cannot understand the words of the Prophet like a man.”
Zehra felt her face flush hot with anger. Sweat stood out on her forehead. She knew better than to argue with him, but she hated all that he said. She stood but didn’t trust her legs to support her. “Get out of my way,” she yelled at him.
“No woman talks to me like that.” He reached for the chair, gripped the edges, and started to lift it.
The silence in the room crackled with tension. Zehra heard the lights above humming. Thick air dulled any outside sounds. The chair scraped across the floor.
Zehra watched his eyes. Knew it was time and slammed the red panic button with her fist.
El-Amin had the chair off the ground. He twisted his shoulders to get better leverage. She could hear him grunt as he strained to swing it toward her.
Zehra backed into the corner. The block walls felt surprisingly cool. She had her arms up. Clanking sounds echoed around the room. El-Amin swore something in Arabic.
Two deputies burst through the door and clamped their arms over El-Amin’s shoulders. The chair clattered to the floor. One deputy seemed to enjoy the opportunity and twisted El-Amin’s arm behind him until Zehra heard something crunch. El-Amin screamed and dropped to the floor. He stomped on El-Amin’s back.
Another deputy arrived and helped the first two drag her client outside the interview room. “You okay, Zehra?” he asked her. “Sorry…we didn’t see anything until you hit the button. I…I’m so sorry.”
She waved her hand at him. “Don’t worry, Jack. I gotta get out of here.” She stumbled back to the elevator and rode up to civilization above. Her blouse was drenched and Zehra longed to get out of the sticky clothing.
She burst through the doors outside and felt the comforting smell of fresh air. Closing her eyes, she let the sun’s warmth penetrate her wet face. Tangled thoughts flew through her brain. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before.
Even though El-Amin said he was guilty, her reading of the file told her there was a good chance he was innocent. Why would he want a trial? Zehra shook out her damp hair as if to shake off the creepy feeling he left with her.
That’s not to mention the way guys like El-Amin had hijacked Islam in a perverted way to serve their violent ends. That infuriated her.
She took a deep breath and watched as a sparrow lifted off a nearby tree. It paddled upwards along the stones on the side of the old City Hall where Peregrine falcons sometimes swooped down from the ramparts to snatch prey like the sparrow.
Zehra started toward the cool of her office, plotting how she was going to dump the case.
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