Prologue to Storm Riders
Friday, September 8
“THIS IS KELLEY MICHELLE, reporting from the Birmingham Westin Hotel, the site of last night’s horrific bombing at a fundraiser for the American Values Party. Miraculously, AVP founder Robert Martinez was ushered out of the packed ballroom just a minute or two before the explosion and was reportedly in a service elevator on the way up to his penthouse suite at the exact moment of detonation. Many of the attendees were not so fortunate. Although quite a few had sensed danger and were on their way out of the ballroom area, many more remained in the path of the devastating blast. At last count, twenty-six are dead and over seventy critically injured, with several on life support.
“One of the deceased has been identified as Arthur Stephenson, wealthy Texas industrialist and Martinez’s closest advisor and the chief of operations for the new party. Stephenson’s body was found just outside of the hotel, in the short street that forms the Westin entrance and then loops around between several popular uptown restaurants before reconnecting with Richard Arrington Boulevard, where I’m standing now. His cause of death remains unconfirmed, but campaign sources have said that other than some superficial cuts on one side of his face, Mr. Stephenson did not appear to have any serious injuries. It is speculated that he died from a heart attack brought on by the stress of what is being termed by Martinez as a ‘heinous and cowardly terrorist attack.’
“Although Birmingham Chief of Police Emmet Frazier stated in a noon press conference, shown here on PNN, that neither his department nor the FBI are prepared to assign responsibility for the bombing at this time—just eighteen hours after the blast—I have been told by multiple sources that nearly all of their attention is being focused in one direction. Brigada de Proteccion Hispana—The Hispanic Protection Brigade—was holding a massive protest rally here last night, which was taking an uncharacteristically violent turn just as the bomb, or bombs, detonated. In fact, over a dozen Brigade protestors who were advancing toward the hotel entrance, despite having been warned by the police to stay at least fifty feet away, were injured by flying glass. Two required hospitalization. The initial blast appears to have emanated from the stage area at the far end of the ballroom, possibly even the speaker podium, and early forensics reports indicate more packets of explosives were planted in several large potted plants along the walls.
“Brigade founder Carlos Guerra remains in police custody and has been unavailable for comment, but one of his spokesmen stated emphatically that no one from their organization had been inside the hotel at any time, and there was therefore no way that they could have been involved. This, of course, begs the question as to who else would have gone to such drastic measures to kill Robert Martinez, presumed to be the primary target, risking hundreds of civilian casualties in the process.
“Regardless of who is ultimately determined to be responsible for this deadly attack, one thing is certain…the political process in this country will be changed forever. And protestors, whatever their side or agenda, will be subjected to more scrutiny than ever before. The American ideal of a peaceful and orderly selection of our leadership has been marred by violence before, but never on this scale. Lives were lost here last night. Innocent lives, guilty of nothing more than exercising their right to support a movement that proposes an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties which, particularly after the last election, has left so many voters feeling disenfranchised.
“On a personal note, this news network was one of several who lost members of our broadcast family last night. PNN reporter Kristin Connelly had just completed a live broadcast from outside the hotel, ten or twelve yards from where I’m now standing, when her life was taken by the horrendous blast. Kristen was a rising star, a young, immensely popular political journalist. She died doing what she loved to do. She will be missed.
“This is Kelley Michelle, PNN, reporting live from Birmingham, Alabama.”
THE LONGER HE STUDIED her, the more convinced he became that she was the one. This was the second time he’d observed her in this pub on Birmingham’s Southside, an area teeming with restaurants and bars frequented by young medical students and other health professionals associated with the nearby UAB medical complex. He specifically wanted a nurse this time, preferably a student, but a practicing nurse would be okay too, as long as she was young and attractive. He didn’t like to think of himself as being shallow, but looks really did matter. He stared at her as she stood next to the bar, laughing and chatting with two other young women, and tried to picture her naked. Her hospital greens were baggy and loose fitting—clearly not designed to be flattering—but she filled them out in the right places well enough to give him a pretty good idea of what lay underneath.
Oh yeah, he thought. You’ll do. You’ll do just fine.
She was a little taller than average, maybe five foot six or seven, and slender. Despite appearing to be a regular in this particular bar—he’d seen her here twice within three nights and the bartenders seemed to know her—she didn’t seem to be a heavy drinker. The most he’d seen her consume in one night was two glasses of red wine. She had the lean, healthy look of an athlete, perhaps a runner or a tennis player; something that required both agility and endurance. Obviously a healthy specimen. On top of everything else, the way she interacted with others indicated a good personality, although that was not important. If things worked out the way he hoped, she wouldn’t need her personality after tomorrow.
He was anxious to speak with her, but knew he might get only one chance. So he was patient—as calm and unrushed as a sniper on a rooftop, waiting for that perfect shot. Finally, after nearly an hour of standing by the crowded bar, one of his target’s friends glanced at her watch and then pulled her wallet from her shoulder bag. The other friend looked at her watch too. They were getting ready to leave. Whether his girl left with them would be decided within the next two minutes. It was time to make his move.
He left his perch on a high stool in the corner and strolled over to the bar. He managed to shoulder his way through the crowd and squeeze in between her and a bearded young man he’d noticed glancing frequently in her direction over the past hour. He signaled one of the bartenders and ordered another Guinness. Leaning one elbow on the bar and turning in her direction, he waited as the two friends argued over who would pick up the tab. The debate was settled when one of them handed a credit card to a bartender just as a foaming pint of beer was placed on the bar. Picking it up and appearing to be jostled was all it took to start a conversation.
“Oh, my God, I’m so sorry! I just spilled half of my beer down your back.”
She turned suddenly to see who had launched the brew attack, but any semblance of aggravation seemed to disappear when she saw the handsome young face poised just a few inches from her own. She smiled as she brushed a strand of chestnut hair from her equally dark brown eyes. “No problem. I was just leaving. It’ll dry when I get outside.”
“Well, please let me pay to have this cleaned.”
She laughed. “They’re cotton scrubs. They go into the washing machine.”
He smiled back at her. “I suppose I could offer to wash them for you, but that might seem a little creepy.”
She nodded, still laughing. “Yeah, seeing as how we’ve never met, I think it would.”
He wiped his beer-soaked hand on his shirt before extending it to her. “I’m Peter.”
She glanced down at his hand before taking it. Her grip was firm. “Jennifer.”
“So, Jennifer, now that we’ve been introduced, do you want me to wash your scrubs?”
“I appreciate the offer, but I think I can handle it.”
“Well, could I at least buy you another drink? You’re wearing most of my beer, so I have to order another one. Will you join me?”
She glanced back at her two friends who, as their knowing grins indicated, were enjoying the show. “My friends and I were just about to head out for dinner.”
“But you don’t have to go right now, do you? Just one drink? It’s the least I can do.”
She started to shake her head as she turned back to her friends, so he said the only thing he could think of that might compel her to stay. “Let me buy your friends a drink too. You can put dinner on hold for another twenty minutes. It’ll give your clothes time to dry a bit.”
She again looked back at her friends, and the one who had paid the bill glanced at her watch. Feeling the tide was shifting against him, Peter interjected, “You could call the restaurant and move your reservation back a half hour, couldn’t you?”
All three laughed as Jennifer said, “Mellow Mushroom doesn’t take reservations.”
Peter smiled and waved for the bartender. “Then it’s settled. What will you ladies have?”
A few minutes later when they had all been served, Peter clinked glasses with each woman in succession. “Down the hatch.”
“Which is better than down my back,” Jennifer said with a coy smile.
Three barstools had opened up, so the women sat and Peter stood next to Jennifer, which gave him the opportunity for a semi-private chat with her. He knew his time was limited, so he tried to use it effectively to learn as much as he could about her, in preparation for asking the all-important question that was the true purpose for their “accidental” meeting.
“Are you a nurse or a student?” he asked, starting the interview.
“Both, actually. I graduated in June with my nursing degree, and next week I’m starting a graduate program in infusion therapy.”
“Infusion therapy? Like in chemo?”
“Yes. My mother died of ovarian cancer my first year in nursing school. I spent a lot of time in the infusion lab with her and just fell in love with the nurses who cared for her. They’re a very special breed, a rare mixture of technical competence and genuine compassion. I decided that’s what I want to give patients.”
Peter studied her face. “What about your dad? Does he live here in Birmingham?”
She looked down and then took a sip of her wine. “No. He and my mom divorced when I was in the third grade. I don’t have much contact with him.”
Peter sipped his own drink before saying, “Well, he doesn’t know what he’s missing. He should be very proud. Is he at least helping with your education costs?”
“Nope,” she said quickly, a trace of bitterness in her tone. “I’m on my own. That’s why I’m wearing these beautiful scrubs. I’m working three-day-weekend shifts at the hospital, and I’ll have classes Monday through Thursday.”
“Never a day off?”
She smiled. “Classes don’t start until a week from tomorrow, so I’m off for the next four days. After that, I’ll just be off on holidays, unless they fall on a weekend, and then I’ll be working.”
He paused a moment before entering the most critical line of questioning. “Well, since you have a few days off, would you be interested in making a little extra money?”
Her smile disappeared immediately, replaced by a look that led him to believe she was either puzzled, insulted, or both. “What do you mean?” she asked icily.
He held up a hand and spoke quickly, thinking she might be on the verge of storming out. “No, please, hear me out. This is completely on the up-and-up. There’s an elderly woman, a friend of mine, who just got out of ICU. She was severely injured in that bombing at the Westin Thursday night.”
Jennifer’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open in an expression of shock. “Oh, my God! She was at the AVP dinner? I got called in to help at the hospital that night. Every nurse in the city did. It was horrible!”
“Yes,” he muttered. “It was.”
She stared at him, seeming to notice for the first time several small cuts and peeling skin from a burn on the left side of his face. “You were there too?”
“Yes. But I wasn’t in the ballroom when the bomb went off. I managed to get back in there before the first responders arrived and I found my friend. Her name is Margaret…Margaret Van Fleet. She was in pretty bad shape. Lost a leg and a lot of blood. I didn’t worry as much when she was in ICU, but now that she’s in a regular room I’m just afraid she won’t get the attention she needs. I’ve spent as much time with her over the past three days as they’d allow, but I have some things I need to take care of and can’t spend as much time there as I’d like. I just want someone to be there with her a few hours each day while I’m gone. In case she needs something.”
She smiled sadly as she shook her head. “That’s very caring of you, Peter, but the hospital can help you find a volunteer to sit with her. You won’t have to pay a thing.”
“I don’t mind paying,” Peter said. “I just want the right person. Someone knowledgeable, but also someone who is kind and understanding. Someone like you.”
She was still shaking her head. “I don’t know. I only have a few days off before I start…”
“I’ll pay a hundred dollars an hour. Cash.”
Her eyes went wide again. “A hundred dollars an hour? How many hours a day are we talking about?”
“No more than four. And it will only be through Wednesday or Thursday. Her doctor told me that if she continues to improve, she’ll be released before the end of the week. She has a son in Nashville who will come get her and take her to his home for a while. Until she can get by on her own.”
“She doesn’t have a husband?”
“Killed in the blast,” Peter said.
“Oh, that poor woman.”
Peter nodded. “She has a lot of recovering to do. Both physically and emotionally. I just don’t want her spending so much time alone before she’s back with family. She has a lot to process. Not the least of which is losing a leg.”
“What time would you need me there?”
He smiled inwardly. He had her! “Noon to four tomorrow would be great. Maybe you could help her with lunch. I’d make sure I’m back by four, and then we could agree on the schedule for Tuesday and Wednesday. And Thursday, if that becomes necessary, but I doubt it will. Margaret is a very strong woman. I’m sure she’ll be ready for discharge by then.”
“Well,” Jennifer said, gazing down as she chewed on her lower lip, obviously considering the impact of twelve hundred tax-free dollars on her expenses. She looked up at him and thrust out her hand. “Okay, I’ll do it. Noon tomorrow. Where do I need to be?”
He shook her hand, again noting the firm grip and that the skin was a bit dry…probably the result of numerous hand scrubbings each day. “Room 610, North Pavilion. I’ll be there waiting for you. I’m sure she’s going to like you.”
“I hope so,” Jennifer said. “She sounds like a very special lady. In fact, she must be, having a guy like you being so concerned about her.”
He smiled. “You can’t imagine.”
Five minutes later he paid the tab and bade all three ladies goodnight before heading for the door. He was convinced that Jennifer was a perfect choice. He knew it was possible she might change her mind and not show up, but he didn’t believe that would happen. He felt certain that she would walk into Room 610 tomorrow at noon…but Jennifer would not walk back out.