In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an
incessant flux, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his
-- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations,
The morning school bell was clattering in the distance as Hope
Gardner sandwiched her Volvo station wagon between Mrs.
Moscone’s Escalade and Janey Eagleton’s Prius. She only
nicked the Prius’ bumper, or rather the plastic piece of junk
that passed for a bumper these days, but the gentle thump went
unnoticed by her two children in the back seat of her car. She
wished she had the guts to ding the Escalade a little, just to make
it fair, but the Cadillac belonged to Mrs. Moscone, and nobody
wanted Mrs. Moscone mad at them. Her husband was from The Hill in
St. Louis, the kind of neighborhood where “The
Sopranos” was considered a documentary.
She wondered briefly whether she should leave a note, but that
notion flew out of her head as the back door rocketed open.
“Bye, Mom!” shouted Emma, her twelve-year-old. Emma
was blonde, green-eyed and filling out with a rapidity that
surprised Hope, even though she had gone through the same
transformation herself when she was her daughter’s age. One
moment a skinny kid, the next... And if she noticed, how much more
quickly the boys noticed too.
More than anything, Emma wanted to grow up to be Gwyneth
Paltrow, win an Oscar and marry a rock star, more or less in that
order. Hope didn’t have the heart to tell her daughter that
the odds were several million to one against any of those things
happening. But childhood was for dreaming; Emma would learn about
the harsh realities of life soon enough.
Emma was halfway across the schoolyard as Hope turned to Rory.
Rory was different. Small for his age, he was skittish, unsure,
easily alarmed, especially for a ten-year-old. And right now his
nose was running, too. “Come on, honey,” said Hope,
wiping his face with a clean handkerchief and pulling his zipper up
tight. “You don’t want to be late.”
The first snarl of winter had come early to southern Illinois,
and there was a stiff, chill breeze blowing into Edwardsville from
the Mississippi, just a few miles to the west. Edwardsville was an
exurb of St. Louis, but the big city across the river might as well
be in a different country, not just another state. Edwardsville
still had an old-fashioned, midwestern small-town feel to it, and
that’s the way folks liked it.
Nothing ever happened in Edwardsville.
Rory snuffled again and wiped his nose on his sleeve; she could
never get him to stop doing that. In the distance, they could both
hear the school bell ringing, this time longer and louder.
Hope got out of the car and held out her arms to her son.
“Okay, big guy,” she said. “Time to
“I don’t want to go, mama,” Rory said
plaintively, not budging.
At times like this, Hope wondered if her son needed some kind of
special-ed program. She had talked about it with her husband, Jack,
but Jack was a no-nonsense, no-excuses kind of guy, dead set
against it. His tech-consulting business did a lot of work with the
military all over the midwest, some of it highly classified, and as
far as he was concerned, special-ed programs were for sissies and
slackers, and his son was neither of the above. The same went for
“conditions” like Attention Deficit Disorder, and
“diseases” with no physiological symptoms.
“Nothing that can’t be cured by self-control or a good
whack on the ass,” Jack would say.
Hope wasn’t sure she agreed with him, but there it was.
And so Rory sat through class after class, his wind wandering, his
grades mediocre, his teachers frustrated.
Oh well, not much could be done about that at the moment. And
anyway, Jack was supposed to leave on a business trip to
Minneapolis today, so further discussion would have to wait until
he got back.
Hope reached in and took her son’s hand. It was cold to
the touch, clammy, sweaty despite the weather.
Reluctantly, Rory let himself be hoisted up and out of the car.
“Can’t I stay home today, Mom?” he asked.
In the distance, by the schoolhouse door, Hope could see a man
waving at them, telling them to hurry. Later, she would recall that
the man was unfamiliar, someone she had never seen before. Ever
since Columbine and the other shootings, schools had become much
more concerned with security, and strange adults were not allowed
to roam the halls. But this man --- white, blond, strongly built
--- was well turned-out in a coat and tie.
Must be a new teacher, Hope thought. Strange, in the middle of
the term. She herself was a substitute teacher at the school, and
she thought she knew everybody. In fact, she had a class to teach
at noon; well, she’d ask the principal when she saw him.
The bell rang sharply, one last time. No other kids in sight ---
everyone was in the building. Except Rory, who was still holding on
to her hand.
Before she could answer, his hand slipped from hers and he
suddenly broke away. “It’s okay,” he said.
“I can handle it.”
Hope watched him dash across the dead grass and the new teacher
waved him home, like an airplane coming in for a landing. She waved
once at Rory’s back, but he didn’t see her, ducking
under the man’s arm and through the door just as the bell
struck 8 a.m.
A brisk gust of wind blew through her, giving her the chills,
and it was starting to snow a little. She shook herself to get
warm, then walked back toward the car. She made a short detour
around the Prius, to see if its bumper was perhaps worse than
she’d thought and was surprised to see that it wasn’t
Janey Eagleton’s all, but one with Missouri plates. Now she
didn’t feel so guilty.
It was not until she was halfway home that she remembered
thinking it was odd they were lowering the iron bars on the school
windows just as instruction was starting.
Edwardsville -- Jefferson Middle
Mrs. Braverman’s fourth grade arithmetic class opened each
school day with a moment of silence. It wasn’t exactly a
prayer, which the children all knew would be illegal, but neither
was it a chance to sneak in a few more winks of sleep before the
day began in earnest; Mrs. Braverman saw to that as she patrolled
the aisles between the desks.
Rory offered up some quick thoughts in favor of his parents, his
dad away on business, his mom always rushing around in the Volvo,
which she treated more like a ferryboat than a car, locked in an
eternal game of Cannibals and Missionaries.
Which was, in fact, one of Rory’s favorite pastimes:
trying to figure out how to get various odd numbers of cannibals
and missionaries across a river without ever leaving more
man-eaters than men of the cloth on either side. It was a favorite
subject of his doodles, but on this morning he tried very hard to
visualize the scene: scary dark men with bones in their noses
looking hungrily upon pale-faced creatures wearing what seemed to
him to be full-length black dresses. You didn’t see many men
of the cloth around Edwardsville these days, and even though the
Gardners were more or less Lutherans, their minister usually wore
Rory had gotten several moves into his game of mental gymnastics
when Mrs. Braverman’s midwestern caw brought him out of his
reverie and back to attention. He glanced at the clock on the wall
and saw that, as usual, only two minutes had passed; Rory
didn’t like math, and of course wasn’t very good at it,
but he already had a firm grip on Einstein’s theory of
relativity: the forty-five minutes between 8:05 and 8:50 a.m. were
the Methuselahs of minutes.
Rory knew the drill, and so he flipped his book open to the
homework page even before Mrs. Braverman got the words out of her
mouth. Except that, on this morning, the words never came out of
her mouth. Most of the other kids had done the same thing, but Mrs.
Braverman had left her desk and gone over to the classroom door, a
wooden one with a large pane of glass in it, the better for the
principal, Mr. Nasir-Nassaad, to be able to glance in and give the
class one of those looks he was famous for. Which is why, behind
his back, the kids all called him Mr. Nasty-Nosy.
Some said Mr. Nasir-Nassaad was from Lebanon, others that he was
really from Cleveland, and still others whispered ominously that
they knew for a fact that he was a long-lost brother of Osama bin
Laden. The funny part was that Mr. Nasir-Nassaad was actually
pretty nice, even if he did remind Rory of one of his imaginary
cannibals. It was always a disappointment when he opened his mouth
and sounded like everybody else in Edwardsville: normal.
It wasn’t the principal at the door, however. Rory sat
near the back, with the rest of the “R’s” ---
Betsy Randolph, Cameron Rollins and Jake Russert --- so he
didn’t have a very good view of the door, but from the look
on Mrs. Braverman’s face, the visitor was somebody she
didn’t recognize. He could tell, because whenever she was
unexpectedly interrupted, unless it was by Nasty-Nosy, she got this
how-dare-you look, because as far as Mrs. Braverman was concerned,
teaching was the most important thing in the world, and not to be
She opened the door a crack and stuck her face in the opening
Rory could see only the back of her head. She spoke lowly,
inaudibly, then took two steps back and opened the door wide.
A man came in --- a man Rory recognized at once. It was the same
man who had ushered him through the door as he scooted in. The
“Children,” said Mrs. Braverman. “This is Mr.
--- what was your name again?”
“Charles,” the man replied. He had an accent. He
didn’t sound like he was normal, or like he was from
“Charles. He’s one of our new substitute teachers,
and he’s going to be helping out in class today. So
let’s all give him a big Mississippi River welcome on his
first day with us.”
The children applauded politely. “I’m just going to
run down to the principal’s office for a moment,” said
Mrs. Braverman. “Won’t be a minute.”
Mrs. Braverman took a step or two out the door, then staggered
back inside the classroom as if profoundly puzzled by something
that had just happened. There was an extraordinary look on her face
as she turned to the class, and then she fell to the floor --- sat
down, heavily, as if bearing an intolerably heavy burden. She tried
to say something, but no sound came out. Instead, blood suddenly
poured from her mouth, her head rolled back and her skull hit the
floor with an egg-cracking report that Rory would never forget.
The new teacher, Charles, jumped into action. He leaped over
Mrs. Braverman and slammed the door, locking it. Then he turned to
“Everybody down,” he said. “Get under your
desks and don’t look up, no matter what.” Everybody did
what he or she was told. Everybody was too shocked to scream.
Everybody was real scared.
From under his desk, Rory could hear Mrs. Braverman’s
labored breathing, growing slower. He knew she’d been shot,
but had no idea who shot her. He wondered whether Charles knew
first aid or CPR and, if so, when he was going to start helping
From outside the door came the sound of screaming and gunfire.
Of running feet and the thud of bodies falling. It went on for only
a couple of minutes, but childhood minutes are long, and these
minutes were as close as youth gets to eternity.
Mrs. Braverman had stopped breathing. From his spot near the
back, on the floor, Rory could see a widening puddle of red that
had stained her pantsuit and was now spreading across the floor,
toward where Annie Applegate and Ehud Aaronson were crouching. He
wondered how long it would take for the blood puddle to move
through the Bs and Cs and get to the later letters in the alphabet,
and whether they would be there time for him to find out.
Now it was quiet. Charles’s feet moved across the room,
stepped over Mrs. Braverman and stopped in front of the door. The
rest of Charles was obviously listening.
“Boys and girls,” said Charles after a few long
moments. His voice was calm. Rory thought that was cool --- that
Charles kept it together despite what had just happened.
Rory’s own heart was pounding like mad. He hoped that when he
grew up, he could be cool, like Charles.
“I want you all to stand up, leave your things behind and
--- very quietly --- follow me. Everything is going to be all
“You have to trust me. Stand up, keep silent and
we’ll all get out of here.”
This time, everybody moved and nobody made a sound. All that
fire drill practice was finally paying off. As the children began
Indian-filing out of the classroom, Rory noticed that none of the
girls looked at Mrs. Braverman’s body through their tears,
but the boys each sneaked a peek as they shuffled by. Nobody spoke
“There’s a good girl... good lad,” murmured
the man. As Rory approached, the man’s free hand reached out
and stopped him. “Hold it.”
The line stopped; the children froze. It crossed Rory’s
mind that the man was somehow going to blame him for what happened
to Mrs. Braverman. “You were almost late for school,”
the man said. “What’s your name?”
“Was that your mother dropping you off?”
“Yes, sir.” He was close enough to Mrs.
Braverman’s body that he could have touched her with his
foot. He closed his eyes in prayer. He didn’t care whether it
was illegal. He didn’t care if they came to arrest him later.
He had a good excuse.
When he opened his eyes, Charles was still looking at him.
“It’s good to have you on the team, Rory.”
Charles held out his hand to Rory. “You know what our
team’s motto is?”
“Who Dares, Wins.”
St. Louis, Missouri.
KXQQ billed itself as “the St. Louis Metro Area’s
Number One Source for News,” but everyone knew that was
bullshit. Most of the reporters were fresh out of Penney-Missouri
or B.U., young kids in their first jobs, ambitious but lazy, fluent
in contemporary psychobabble and absolute masters of the
jailhouse-jive hand gestures now de rigueur for all TV reporters,
but otherwise illiterate, innumerate and ahistorical. Deep down
inside, they really wanted to be cable news anchors or Hollywood
screenwriters. By the time any reporters at KXQQ found out about a
story, the story was usually over.
Rhonda Gaines-Solomon stared dully at CNN with one ear cocked at
the police scanner and the new issue of Entertainment Weekly in her
hand. She was 24 years old, from San Bernardino, California. She
hated the midwest, hated the widebodies who inhabited this part of
the country, hated the awful weather, and pretended she was really
from Los Angeles, if anybody asked.
“What’s hot today, Ms. Solomon?” Mr. Dunkirk
always said that, especially when it was she who was hot, which was
most days. Like all female on-air talent these days, Rhonda
Gaines-Solomon was good-looking in that tramp-next-door sort of way
that everyone seemed to want lately, and she did the best she could
with what God, her parents and a discreet visit to a plastic
surgeon had given her.
Still, she thought, one day she could bust Mr. Dunkirk for
sexual harassment if she really set her mind to it. She noticed the
way he looked her, had seen his fat wife, and figured him for a
possible play if the going got tough, or she wasn’t out of
this burg in six months, or both.
“All quiet on the midwestern front,” she replied,
checking out the photo spread on Brad Pitt. It was her standard
answer. Nine o’clock in the morning was far too early for St.
Louis’s usual repertoire of shootings, stabbings and
miscellaneous mayhem to have gotten underway yet. The perps were
all still sleeping off their depredations from the previous
Casting a quick glance at the bank of TV screens on the newsroom
wall, Mr. Dunkirk tacked toward her. “I want something juicy
for the 4 o’clock today,” he said, checking out her
legs as discreetly as possible.
“I’ll see what I can do, chief.”
He hated it when she called him “chief.” “Who
else’ve we got in the field today?”
“John and Sandy.”
That would be Mr. Kelleher and Ms. Gomez. Mr. Dunkirk started to
say something, but held his tongue. Young people these days were on
a first-name basis with the whole world, as if last names
didn’t matter, or didn’t exist at all. That’s why
he insisted upon the use of the honorific for himself, and called
all his young charges by their last names, just to remind them that
they had one.
“See if one of you can get me something better than a
weather story, will you?” said Mr. Dunkirk. He looked around
the shabby newsroom --- the only part of it that shone was the
plastic set --- and sighed. This was not where he had envisioned
himself twenty-five years ago, when he got his first job at a small
television station in upstate New York, with dreams of Edward R.
Murrow and Walter Cronkite dancing in his head.
And yet here he was, stuck in the dead-end job of news director
at the lowest-rated local television in one of the worst television
markets in the country. Nothing good was ever going to happen to
him again. His life was over.
He wondered if he should make a play for Solomon at some point,
just to see what would happen, then decided to table the notion and
start thinking about Christmas shopping for his wife.
“How about a cat up a tree? A homeless guy in a cardboard
box?” Rhonda shouted after him as he disappeared into his
office and closed the door. Every now and then she almost felt
sorry for him, if it was possible to feel sorry for somebody that
old and hopeless. She would never turn out that way, she
promised herself; she’d kill herself long before things came
A crackle on the police scanner seemed promising for a moment
but it turned out to be only a hit-and-run with no fatalities.
Then the phone rang. “Newsroom.”
A pause, then a voice. Low, modulated, cultivated: a
“To whom am I speaking?” There was a hint of an
English accent, although truth to tell Rhonda probably
couldn’t distinguish among English, Australian, New Zealand
or South African if she had a gun at her head. Foreign, in any
“You will do.” A pause. “Do you know
what’s going on at the school?”
This might be promising. She grabbed a pen, knocked some junk on
her desk out of the way and found a scrap of paper. “What
“Edwardsville Middle School. Jefferson, not Lincoln. Do
you know what’s going on there?”
She glanced at the monitors to see if any of their rivals had
anything about Edwardsville: nothing. A glance at the local AP wire
on her laptop screen: nothing. “Far as I know, there’s
nothing going on at the Jefferson Middle School.”
A short pause, then a challenge --- “What do you
Suddenly, she realized that she’d misunderstood the
question. The tipster wasn’t asking her for information. He
was giving her information. Rhonda’s mind kicked
into high gear as the import of what he was saying sank in.
Frantically, she waved at Mr. Dunkirk behind the glass, but he was
sipping his coffee and reading the paper.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice rising “A
school shooting? What it is you’re telling me?”
“How fast can you get over here?”
She was out the door so fast that Mr. Dunkirk never even saw her
leave. One moment she was there -
And the next moment she was gone.
Excerpted from HOSTILE INTENT © Copyright 2011 by Michael
Walsh. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights