Officer Nora Khalil is a strong independent woman used to navigating different terrains. As an American-born Muslim, she loves her country and tries to honor the traditions of her people, but feels that she must constantly confront those who think she is alien.
Assigned to the FBI office in Erie, Pennsylvania, she tries to fit into small-town America after a childhood growing up in the bustle of Philly’s dark streets. A series of horrific acts of violence are committed by a well-connected group of domestic terrorists eager to spark a national revolution. The town erupts in chaos and the eyes of the nation are on these events. In turn, this heats up the debate about the fabric of our nation…and how those who feel disenfranchised by our new multiculturalism are determined to take back their birthright and, in their own words, make our nation great again.
Will Nora and her team be able to defuse the situation before the carnage goes national?
will become available July 11th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Nora brushed a few sweat-soaked strands of hair from her eyes in order to better regard her father. In each of Ragab Khalil’s hands he clutched the neck of an industrial-sized trash bag containing all of the least-frayed towels, Nora’s polka-dotted comforter, three heavy blankets, and six feather pillows. Baba’s shirt was dark with perspiration, and the walk down the steep stairs from the family apartment over their restaurant had left him winded. Meeting Nora’s eyes, he lifted the bags in a small gesture, and looked with flared nostrils from her to the back end of Ben’s SUV. Nora gave a small nod. Frowning fiercely, Baba plopped the bags next to a heavily taped cardboard box.
He was getting better at all this, Nora decided. In the past year she had moved from their apartment to a tiny flat of her own in Chinatown and from there to her twenty weeks of training at Quantico. During her first move, he had confined himself in the restaurant’s kitchen, pretending to be immersed in work, and banging pots and pans with such intensity that the din resounded out onto Arch Street. He had not met her eyes for nearly a month after that. When she had announced the second move, which meant her first stint away from Philadelphia, he had sworn most foully in Arabic and gone off to pace at the playground behind the restaurant, muttering darkly.
This time he was making eye contact, talking to her, and ignoring Ben with as little open hostility as possible. When not schlepping what she’d assigned him, he would try to thrust on her as many pots, pans, and ladles on her as the restaurant could spare.
“You might need it, just take it,” he said.
“I never cook, ya Baba,” she said. “You know this.” She was fighting to be as patient as possible, but the summer heat was bearing down on them. It was hard to breathe, and her shirt was soaked with sweat. Also, Ben was double-parked on Arch Street, provoking conniption fits from the driving public.
Baba was insistent. “Maybe you will throw some big FBI party and need to make fetta.”
Nora pulled the ladle and stock pot out of the back of the Rogue. She pressed them gently into her father’s hands. “I couldn’t make fetta if I wanted to. Keep your kitchen. I will come visit and you can make me fetta.”
“What are you going to eat there?” he demanded.
“Same thing I ate at Quantico, Baba. Big juicy ham and bacon sandwiches.”
Her father’s face convulsed in disgust.
“That would be even worse than dating him,” he said, nodding toward Ben.
“I know,” Nora stage-whispered. “That’s why I said it. See? It’s not so bad. I still haven’t gone over to eating pig.”
“So there’s hope,” her brother Ahmad declared cheerfully, joining them and gingerly setting a pile of CDs on the floor of the front passenger seat.
Ben peered at the stack. “What’s this?”
“Old CDs of my mom’s,” Ahmad answered. “Symbol of her rebellion against my grandfather—who wouldn’t let her listen to music.”
Nora looked at her brother, refusing to get weepy. “You would never let me touch those before,” she said gruffly.
“Yeah, well, you’ll need something to keep you from freakin’ out in that little town.”
“Don’t hate on little towns,” Nora said. “I’ve rented a bigger apartment than you’ve ever been in for half what we pay here.”
“I don’t understand why anyone would name a town Erie,” said Ahmad. “It sounds like something out of Scooby Doo.”
“Believe me, I have no idea,” Nora answered.
Her father, still clutching his stock pot, said, “But why did you have to pick that town, Nora? Who would pick a town with a name like that?”
She shrugged. “I told you, Baba. It was Lincoln, Nebraska, Birmingham, Alabama, or Erie, Pennsylvania. It was the closest I could get to home.”
“Well, I don’t see how it’s close at all. It’s the furthest part of the state that you can go and still be in the state. Who can get there if you need them?” His eyes flicked over Ben, then he said sourly, “Not even him.”
“He has a name, Baba. It’s Ben. And Ben will come visit, and you and Ahmad will come visit, and it’s no big deal. People move all the time.”
“Not my people,” Ragab grumped.
“Besides, I’m a big bad FBI agent now,” she said with a grin. “I don’t need anybody at all.”
Her father wiped at the sheen of sweat on his forehead and gave her a baleful look.
“It’s true, sir,” Ben added, trying to be helpful. “She got first in her class in mixed martial arts.”
Ragab’s lip curled ever so slightly as he staunchly refused to look at Ben.
Nora rolled her eyes. “Give me a kiss. I’m going. Don’t pout.”
He dutifully gave her a kiss on each cheek, then patted her hair. “Call me every day.”
“I will call you. Not every day.”
“Call me every day,” said Ahmad, pulling her into a hard hug.
“Maybe,” conceded Nora.
She draped her long arms around both of them, breathing them in, then reluctantly released them. All three smiled at each other’s wet eyes. Nora slid quickly into the SUV as Ben waved goodbye. He’d long ago given up hoping Ragab would shake his hand.
Ragab and Ahmad stood rooted to the sidewalk, still waving at the retreating Nissan. Nora stayed turned around in her seat, watching and waving until Ben turned right onto 22nd and started heading toward the Ben Franklin Parkway and the Schuylkill Expressway beyond.
He glanced over at her. “You okay?”
She nodded in silence.
He lay a hand on her knee. “Not convinced.”
She shrugged. “I’m good, Ben. Those two are going to have a hard time, though.”
“They aren’t your job, Nora.”
“We’re all each other’s jobs,” she answered softly, her gaze falling on the parade of flags adorning the Parkway. They passed in front of the Art Museum and began traveling up Kelly Drive; he always took this way when he could, she’d noticed. The river snaked along beside them while craggy cliffsides stretched skyward. She’d run along the river thousands of times, but she still watched it as though seeing it for the first time. The pathways were dense with runners and dog walkers; several rowing shells were slicing through the still water. Nora squeezed Ben’s hand, then started sorting through her mother’s CDs. There was a lot of Amr Diab, some Warda and Isala, a few Kazim al-Sahir albums, and the ubiquitous Umm Kulthoum. She glanced at Ben, trying to assess what he’d be able to tolerate, and decided on some Amr Diab.
It wasn’t the first time she and Ben had had a road trip together. He’d driven her to Quantico and picked her up at graduation, although Ahmad had been with him that time. As they logged more and more miles away from the city, Ben’s tension seemed to increase.
Finally he switched off the music.
“Look,” he said, clutching her hand. “I’m just saying that if you ask to transition into anti-terror you will end up with a job in a real city.”
“Erie’s a real city. They have a mayor and everything,” Nora said.
“Benjamin, I get it. But I have never wanted that.”
“But you want to be with me, right?” he insisted.
“Of course I do. But we both know why anti-terror isn’t for me.”
“Because Eric Burton once thought you were sketchy?”
“Because on some level I’ve been coping with terrorists who happen to look like me since I was a kid. I don’t want it to shape my whole life that way. I gotta figure out who I am outside of that box.”
He looked over at her, frowning.
“How about ‘the country needs you’ argument?”
Nora burst out laughing. “You are so self-serving. You just tried to work the ‘Ben Calder needs you’ angle. When that fails, you go after my patriotism?”
“Well, maybe you need to think about it that way.”
“You yourself said they recruit people like me every day. So maybe they’re in good shape.”
“I think you’re being short-sighted.”
“I think you’re being pulled over.” She pointed at the flashing lights of the State Trooper as Ben swore.
* * *
The first few weeks in Erie, Pennsylvania, were a swift and unrelenting blur of meeting new people and learning to live in a quiet apartment in a quiet city.
She found a routine, though. It was, she realized, one she hadn’t necessarily anticipated.
One issue for which she was thoroughly unprepared was having a neighbor.
The floor overhead groaned as Nora frowned into the dimness.
“You cannot be serious,” she said aloud, as the music began filtering down into the stillness of her ground-floor bedroom.
On some level, she preferred the music to the pacing, but both kept her from sleeping. She glanced at the clock, only to confirm that it was just past one in the morning, which was, in Nora’s mind, the wrong time to be playing the violin.
She would not have played the violin at that time.
She would not have paced around on hundred-year-old hardwood floors at that time.
But she was, apparently, the only rational tenant of the two who occupied the old brown-brick house on French Street.
Her landlord had not shown her the apartment at one in the morning, however, so she’d had no idea that her upstairs neighbor could be so malevolent. Since taking up residence in June, Nora had prepared in her head three or four polite speeches and several carefully-constructed patient pleas for respectable hours. Somehow these would crumble on her tongue each time she saw the slight woman with the pale blonde hair. Her neighbor would nod at her and pull her thin lips into a thinner smile. Nora would always end up feeling regretful of her irritation toward this wispy woman whose name she did not know.
Now she lay in her bed, a box fan aimed strategically at her, feeling powerless against her tiny violinist neighbor. The crusty, peeling windows of the brown brick house seemed to usher in the July heat (something else the landlord hadn’t mentioned), and so Nora had invested in a fan to help the one window air-conditioner in its labors.
She finally turned on her side and, taking her BlackBerry off of the bedside table, texted Ben.
He called her immediately.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” she replied, grateful for his voice.
Nora paused, wondering how much to bombard him with at this time of night. I hate it, she responded in her head. I hate it so much. I run. I work. I work out. I sleep. I wake up. I do it all again. It was late, though. She didn’t want to waste their conversation complaining. At last she settled on the word: “Boring.”
“How’s the neighbor lady?” he asked intuitively.
She couldn’t resist spouting out, “Killing me. I don’t get the walking as she plays. There’s no reason to walk, is there? Can’t you just stand still and play the violin?”
“I have no idea, Nora. But you need to talk to her. Or complain to the landlord.”
Nora sighed. “If I complain to the landlord, she’ll know it’s me. And the few times I’ve seen her it just hasn’t felt right. I feel like I could squash her. So I’d feel like a jerk for having that be the first thing I ever say to her.”
“So ask her out for coffee, get to know her, and then talk to her about it,” Ben answered sensibly.
Nora smiled in the darkness. “You and your coffee.”
“Did you get any ticks yet?” he asked.
She shook her head into the darkness. “Not yet. But that thing about deer ticks I sent you … that wasn’t even the half of it—83 percent of the countryside is apparently insane because of Lyme disease.”
“What’s your source for that figure, Special Agent Khalil?”
“The server at the Eat-n-Park.”
“Well, she would know,” Ben confirmed. “How’s the world of child pornography?”
She sighed. “Scary. Ugly. Sad.”
“Good. Fine. Whatever. Boring.”
Nora was silent, thinking, then said, “I haven’t figured Pete out yet; he comes off as some sort of hard-drinking frat boy, with this crazy Southern drawl. Which totally makes him sound ignorant, right? But he’s very sharp, very intense, about computers. Every time I say I don’t understand something he says, all nerdy, Well did you try to understand? Anna … I don’t know. She makes me nervous.”
Ben laughed. “What? Why?”
“She’s so intense, so, like, relentlessly capable…”
“Kinda like you?”
Nora made a “psh” sound. “I am waaay more subtle. Anyway, they aren’t as fun to hang out with as you.”
“Did you go out drinking with them yet?”
Nora groaned. “Oh my God, this is the drinkingest town I ever saw.”
“You haven’t seen many towns,” Ben reminded her. “But of course it is. What else are they going to do there? Anyway, this whole violinist thing is your fault. If you were out at the bar you wouldn’t notice. You don’t have to drink. Have a coke. It’s called group bonding.”
She considered this, then said again: “They’re really boring, Ben.”
“Is that your way of saying you miss me?”
She shook her head, listening for a moment as the melody upstairs crescendoed and then eased into softness. “You know I do,” she answered.
“Good. Now go to sleep. You have to be at work in seven hours. I’ll come see you on Labor Day?” he was asking.
“Yes. Ahmad will be here. But come.”
Ben was silent. “When is he coming?”
Nora noted the change in his tone and said slowly, “It will be his first long weekend after classes start, and he knew I’d want to hear all about it.…”
“So the whole time I’d be there. When will we get time alone?”
Nora sat up in bed and clutched her knees. “Ben, I don’t know. But it’s hard on him not having me around, you know this. It was just us for so long. He’s so excited about coming.…”
There was a long pause. “Okay, Nora. I guess I’ll talk to you soon, then. Get some rest.”
His voice was both cold and hurt.
Nora held the phone against her ear, trying hard to think of something to say. “I—okay, Ben. You, too. Call me soon.”
She replaced the BlackBerry and lay back down feeling so much worse than before they’d spoken. The violinist overhead seemed to sense this and began a slow, soulful tune that eventually lulled Nora into a dreamless sleep.
* * *
Nora liked to get to work first, to take a little time to get her bearings in a still-quiet office before Pete and Anna arrived. Typically, Maggie was the only one there when she arrived, but although Nora felt sure that she heard and noticed everything that went on around her, Maggie rarely spoke unless directly spoken to. Nora hadn’t actually received more than a few curt nods and a grunt from her, and Anna had warned her from day one that it was best to steer clear.
The woman is madly efficient and a good egg, Anna said, but if you talk too much at her she’ll unleash hell on you.
Nora had never heard anyone called “a good egg” before, so the two of them dwelt on this point for rather longer than Anna seemed to think necessary. Her next statement was, Seriously, though. We can’t function without her. So don’t piss her off.
As all this had occurred in the context of an office tour, Anna then showed her the room where useful machines went to die. Every now and then we have to use a VCR to see a random videotape of something. That machine is in here. Some stats machines. Old fingerprinters with actual ink pads. Peter calls it the Room of Requirement. That nasty vinyl loveseat in the corner is where he sneaks off to for naps. When you can’t find Peter, he’s here. Just so you know.
Nora now glanced periodically at the television hung on the wall just outside her workspace. It was usually muted, but Nora found it bizarre to have a TV on and going all the time. She felt as though they were trolling for work by waiting to pounce on something the networks dug up for them. A gaggle of older women Nora couldn’t name were hotly debating something, and Nora felt like it was far too early for that much animated discussion with anyone. She tried to reposition herself so that her back was to the screen.
As she did this, Pete entered their large, shared cubicle and plopped into his desk chair. He brought with him the smell of sweat mixed with far too much aftershave. He also clutched a towering cup of Starbucks coffee.
“Miss Nora, how are you?” he drawled.
“Peter. Good morning. Isn’t it a little warm outside for all that hot coffee?”
“There is a lovely young barista who I cannot disappoint,” he responded lightly.
Anna issued a small, derisive snort as she walked in with some of the office Folgers in a public radio mug. “Thank God Pete’s around to keep corporate America up and running.”
“And the staff turnover high, I’d imagine,” Nora added. Anna laughed out loud as Pete waved his hand at them both.
“What you cannot imagine is how happy she is to see me every morning,” he insisted.
Sheila Biggs entered frowning. “I’m not happy to see you at all, though. I’d rather have everything in place for busting this guy and have you out bringing him in. Instead I’m not sensing any progress on any front with this thing.” Each of the three gave full attention to the Supervisory Senior Resident Agent. “The Crime Victims Center just emailed me that there is more evidence of abuse, and the director is convinced that the porn in question is coming from our alleged perp in McKean.”
“Do you think the ones who are old enough will testify?” Nora asked.
Anna said darkly, “I don’t think any of them are old enough.”
Nora’s stomach twisted.
Sheila Biggs’s tone was unpleasant. “Pete, even with the limited warrant you have you should be able to identify the IP addresses for the sites he’s using. Nora, you still need to be cross-checking missing persons with the faces on the material we have so far. I want proof—fast—people. You’ve had plenty of time.”
Anna, Nora, and Pete exchanged glances as she stalked out.
“Aren’t the images testimony enough?” Nora asked. “Can’t we make the arrest without the sources?”
Anna shrugged. “Sometimes. Not always. But the issue is that Burgess has disseminated porn before. There’s more to the story this time. We want to figure out where he’s getting it and get to those guys. And find the little girls they’re using.”
“Ugh, but Sheila just has no idea what I’m up against here,” Pete muttered.
Nora looked a question at him.
“Frank Burgess is fat and perverted. But he also knows how to use the Internet. He’s gone Dark Web on this thing, I’m sure of it. I’m going to need his computer.”
“You want me to send for another warrant?” Anna asked.
“Yeah, it’s going to have to be key to this thing. We might as well bust in and say we’re after the computer—this stuff is coming from a dynamic IP address that’s jumped all over. It could be in Erie. Or it could be in Thailand. But Burgess is just the small fish.”
“Less likely it’s in Thailand,” Nora pointed out. “The girls are almost all Caucasian.”
“I know,” Pete replied. “But the point stands. We don’t know where until we can go deeper. I’m trying now with what I have, but we need to just go over there and get the computer.”
Anna pulled her reading glasses out of her hair and perched them on her nose as she wrote. “Internet Service Provider records are insufficient to fully establish browsing history…” she was mumbling to herself as she filled in the lines of the document. She quickly stood and crossed the length of the office to ask Maggie to submit the paperwork via email to the Assistant United States Attorney’s office.
Nora followed her with her eyes, trying again not to weigh-and-find-wanting this tiny outpost on the seventh floor of one of Erie’s few high-rises. She was a world away from the FBI’s massive Philadelphia Field Office. Nora was one of three Special Agents here. In Philly, a senior Special Agent like Anna would have her own office and secretary. In Philly they would have handed such technical tasks as tracking down the mind-numbing IP addresses to the IT team; here the IT team was Pete.
Anna was fighting her weight and a relentless, thin line of gray that poked up from under the coating of red she gave her hair. She was a master at harmonizing the efforts of state and local authorities. Arresting Frank Burgess, when the time came, would be a group effort. Unlike in Philly, where Nora had worked as part of a team she saw day in and day out, the work in Erie was fluid. Two weeks into her post, Nora was realizing that the team members rotated in and out, sometimes including the police department and state police, sometimes including the Border Patrol. The territory was vast. Their office was responsible for seven counties, most of which were rural.
Erie was the urban center. Erie was where families trekked over an hour to visit the mall and eat at the Olive Garden, and where small-town kids who’d never before seen black people came to go to college. As Nora gazed out the long window beyond her desk, she watched a group of six motorcyclists making its way along State Street. Their mufflers, or lack thereof, resounded through the steel and glass corridor made by the rows of office buildings.
Only after the sound had finally died away did Anna remark, “It would have been nice to get this porn perp into custody before the Roar.”
Nora looked up slowly from the computer screen, where she had just begun attempting to match faces from Burgess’s porn files to the dense pile of missing persons reports. She decided she hadn’t heard correctly. “Excuse me?”
Anna swiveled her head to regard Nora. “You haven’t heard about the Roar?”
Clearly she had not, so she didn’t repeat herself.
“Roar on the Shore,” supplied Pete. “Erie’s annual celebration of biker culture.”
This she did repeat, turning the words over in her mouth. “Biker culture?”
Anna harrumphed. “Bandannas and leather jackets and tattoos and everything related to the mighty Harley Davidson, from insurance to how to keep your scrawny-granny-biker-chick from flying off the back when you hit a bump. Bikers. Bikers flood the city. Eighty thousand of them.”
Pete, ever so slightly more cheerful about the topic, added, “They’re gearing up for it now. It starts tomorrow.”
Nora nodded. “And what is required of us?”
Pete and Anna exchanged glances. Anna said, “Occasionally Erie PD calls us in for help with special issues as they get stretched thin with crowd control. But in reality I’ve never had to do anything except turn up my TV to drown out the noise. They’re harmless and happy.”
“Beyond that,” said Pete, “don’t lean on anyone’s bike.”
Anna shook her head, looking tired, then added, “And no matter how much you are tempted, buy no leather halter tops. It’s just skanky.”
* * *
Her father’s voice was gruff. “What are you eating? Where do you get food?”
Nora decided to work a very patient tone. “They have a Wegman’s here. We talked about this. That store we went to in Jersey once. It’s way cheaper than Whole Foods. Their deli section thing with all those rotisserie chickens and stuff is pretty amazing.”
“That chicken isn’t halal,” her dad said.
“Yes, but when there’s no halal meat available you’re allowed to eat regular and then just say the name of God over it before you eat,” she countered. “Because God actually hates it when you starve.”
She heard her dad laughing and envisioned him shaking his head. “Nora, I will freeze something for you every day and then bring you a cooler full of food when I come.”
“How about you just focus on Ahmad,” she replied, though her tone was gentle. “How’s he doing?”
“Grumpy. He doesn’t like working in the restaurant in summers, you know. Then again, he does like the new waitress, Madison.”
Nora smiled, imagining. “Madison?”
“She has an earring in her tongue, which of course I didn’t notice when I hired her. But I keep seeing her sticking out her tongue to show him, and now I need to figure out a way to fire her.”
“For having a tongue piercing?” Nora asked. Other servers had had worse.
Her father’s voice was full of frustration. “No, for flirting with my boy.”
Nora said, “Baba, Ahmad’s a man now, you have to let him be.”
“So he can end up with a kafir like you have?” her father hurled.
And with that, the conversation, like most of their conversations, crumbled.
There were only so many times that Nora could relate the same problem to Ben, she felt, and so she stopped talking about her father’s irrational anger and tried to speak mostly about work, and the city, and things they would do when Ben came to see her.
Ben had made fun of Erie when he helped her move in. No skyscrapers. Not enough people. You won’t last a week.
She had been terse in response. You still have no idea how tough I am, Ben Calder.
She’d claimed toughness to Ben. In fact, she’d been terrified. She’d never really been alone before. Her little apartment in Chinatown had been just moments from home, moments from Ben, and in a neighborhood dense with people, alive with city clamor, and afloat in some of the best, most comforting smells in the world. Just thinking about it made her ache for dim sum. Quantico had meant almost no privacy; she constantly shared space with fiercely eager agents, chattering, vying with each other for the attention of their teachers, undercutting each other, occasionally bullying.
Now, the only break in the quiet was the mad violinist one floor up.
Of course she hated it; of course she missed the city, even if she disliked proving Ben right.
She missed the paths along the Schuylkill River, haunted as they were by the gray clouds from Philadelphia’s constant, creeping traffic. She missed the crowded anonymity of the sidewalks. Erie wasn’t tense and teeming, wasn’t a kaleidoscopic jumble. And so she felt as though she stuck out in a way she never could have in Philly, even when things were really bad.
Only Nora’s morning runs kept her sane. She loved the bay, splayed out as it was under a wide sky that, like the water, fluctuated between bright blue and murky gray. The lake was somehow always different. Some mornings it was flat and serene, other mornings its surface rippled constantly, at a slow, steady boil. Often it foamed with whitecaps that made her wonder why boaters would leave the shelter of the bay for the even rougher waters beyond. She had never been on a boat, and the thought made her woozy.
State Street tumbled down the hill and into the bay, but not before providing an anchor for the Bicentennial Tower, a webby gauntlet of stairs that provided sweeping views from its top tier. No one ever seemed to run the tower stairs but her. In fact there just weren’t that many runners period—in Philly, she’d had to fight for space. The runners were fierce and focused, with expensive shoes that would cause Nora to slow her pace as she passed, ogling. More than this, though, the trails she ran had been riddled with infants pushed in overpriced strollers and octogenarian speed-walkers in spandex that did them no favors.
Here she could really run. She would rip along the Bayfront and then into Frontier Park, along its footbridges and across its wide pathways lined with a universe of tall, softly swaying grasses. There were occasional walkers, a few joggers, but no one who was really serious about running. She wasn’t yet lonely for competition. She liked putting on blistering spurts of speed and feeling the burning in her chest that eventually gave way to a hard, fast breathing that blotted out all other sounds and made her feel strong and self-sustaining.
But when she came home the loneliness really seeped in, and she wandered through the three large rooms of her apartment as though lost. She missed Ahmad’s messes and his constant eating. She missed her father and all his blustery overprotectiveness. On nights when she awoke to raid the fridge, she half expected to encounter Baba sitting in his undershirt and shiny Adidas sweatpants on her couch, shouting advice at cooking show contestants.
Missing Ben was constant, a continuous twisting in her belly, and so she often walked around her apartment with her hand pressing against her navel as though to calm the churning within. There was some wisdom, she’d decided, in not falling in love. Just marrying some guy who was suitable and being done with it. She didn’t have time for the distraction of thinking about Ben when she should be working, should be focusing on taking this new job by storm.
She didn’t need to switch to anti-terror, but at the very least she was going to have to prove herself so she could get a better post. An East Coast post. A post near Ben.
Copyright © 2017 by Carolyn Baugh
Order Your Copy