Below is the very beginning of my third Skeeter Hughes Mystery, yet to be titled. I'm taking a huge risk throwing it out there for you all to see this early draft, but I figure all of publishing is risk-taking, ya know? And, well, the mantra of what we do is "show, don't tell" so I figure this is about as telling as I can get.
All opinions gratefully accepted.
By Judith Yates Borger
Rachel Rand James left happy hour a little early and headed home on the light rail. She was up for reelection and didn’t need headlines that she’d been arrested for drinking and driving. Besides, she needed to be seen on public transportation, which had been one of her campaign issues.
She’d been downtown with her best friend, Skeeter Hughes, and their buddy Buzzy Brewster. Skeeter, Rachel and Buzzy had started working at the newspaper within a month of each other, and soon began going out drinking after deadline. Over several pitchers of beer they’d argue about everything, politics, body image and men. Skeeter always took positions on the left and Rachel on the right. Buzzy usually landed somewhere in the middle, always the arbiter. By last call they were still best friends even if neither had convinced the others of anything. Now, Skeeter was a newspaper reporter, Buzzy was a copy editor and Rachel,who had always had higher ambitions, was mayor of Minneapolis.
The mayor liked to document how taxpayer money was spent. She pulled out her iPhone and snapped a couple pictures of the scene on the train: Office workers heading home. Moms shushing babies. Young folks dressed in the black-pants-and-white-shirts uniform of the evening shift at the hotels. Travelers on their way to the airport, tugging wheeled suit cases. The Hiawatha Light Rail, which the mayor had championed, was packed. Maybe one of the shots would be good enough to use in her new campaign literature, she thought.
As the train pulled into the Cedar Riverside stop Rachel glanced at the platform as people disembarked. A guy in a gold and marroon University of Minnesota hoody and jeans, a couple of giggling Somali girls covered head to toe in jeweled-colored hajibs, an older white man in a blazer and tie talking to a young Somali man in black pants and a tan zipped jacket. A picture of diversity, she thought, and snapped another shot. Then she sent an email to Skeeter and Buzzy.
“Love ya,” she wrote in the subject line, and, “Had a great time tonight” in the body of the email.
They were her last words.
Rachel had called it quits on her third beer and headed home. I was nursing my second and swapping newspaper gossip with Buzzy, my all-time favorite copy editor who, like me, had the night off. We were talking about ordering a pizza when our cell phones sounded simultaneously.
“Uh Oh,” Buzzy said. “This can’t be good.”
The messages went to all staff: “Light rail bombed. Everyone to newsroom.”
“I’m heading in,” Buzzy said.
“I’m not,” I said. “If I go to the newsroom they’re just going to send me right out. I’m closer to the tracks now anyway.”
We had been slogging down the beers at the Loon, a zillion-year-old watering hole kitty corner from the First Avenue light rail stop in downtown Minneapolis. Buzzy stood, gave me a quick nod, threw money on the table and left. I did the same.
I ran to my little red Honda Civic del Sol, which I had parked at a meter, and roared away until I was within a half mile of the Hiawatha Light Rail line. Road construction had traffic backed up, so I ditched my car in a no-parking zone. I grabbed my personal iPhone, the newspaper’s piece-of-crap issued cell phone and my notebook and took off running. I ran up a pile of dirt then did a face plant running down the other side. Damn, I wish I were in better shape, I thought as I wiped grit from my eyes, nose and mouth. Nearby construction workers were so busy watching the smoke billowing to the sky that no one noticed as I pulled myself up, brushed off, and kept running.
The smell of the disaster hung in the air. Acrid. Electrical. Like a hair dryer that’s been working too hard. Then the overpowering stench of burning oil. Fire engines wailed as flames shot to the sky. I figured it would be minutes before the police set up a perimeter impervious to everyone, especially reporters. I had to get as close a possible to see what was going on before the boundary went up.
Half a dozen pickup trucks were parked on a residential street a block away and well within sight of the disaster scene. They probably belong to the construction workers, I thought. Figuring no one would notice me, I climbed into the bed of the black, mud-spattered Ford Ranger and kneeled on top of a blue tarp that covered something hard and lumpy.
The heat from the explosion hit me like an ocean wave. Even though smoke obscured the scene I could see that both cars on the light rail had been destroyed. I needed to get word to the newsroom.
Barely catching my breath, I whipped out my iPhone and hit the speed dial for what the newsroom calls “the Bat Phone,” a dedicated line that the editors monitor twenty-four/seven. Circuits must have been overloaded because l kept getting a busy signal. Same with the piece-of-crap phone. I tried to text. That didn’t work either. I sent an email to content@Citizen.com, a general address monitored by many editors. But emails can be slow. That left Twitter.
The tweet needed to be worded carefully. I didn’t want to tip off the TV stations. I knew they monitored Twitter to keep tabs on the competition because we did the same to keep an eye on them.
“I’m here. Talk to Buzzy.” I tweeted directly to my editor, knowing Buzzy would tell her I had taken off toward the train.
By now the distance between me and the burning train was swarming with cops and firefighters. Sirens wailed. A Hennepin County sherriff’s helicopter whoop, whoop, whooped overhead. But I didn’t see any other media.
“Ours alone, I think,” I tweeted.
The rule on a breaking story like this is you don’t take the time to write full paragraphs. It’s better to shoot just one sentence back to the newsroom as soon as you have a detail. An editor will pull it all together, hopefully taking out all the typos. Keep it comin’, they say. So I did.
“Counting 20 trucks from all firehouses. Sheriff chopper overhead. City, county cops everywhere.”
“Two cars on train fully engulfed. Smells like hair burning.”
“Pop, pop, pop. Don’t know what. Electrical something?”
“Ads on train for Citizen and Metro Transit bubbled, melted on sides of cars.”
I hope someone in the newsroom, our newsroom, is getting all this, I thought, and kept texting.
“Cops set up command center. ”
“Hear no cries for help from train; only rush of fire.”
“Windows pop out on train.”
“More sirens. Maybe 6 ambulances pulling up.”
“They’re not hurrying. Doubt anyone survived.”
Just then one of the half dozen cops at the command center turned in my direction so I ducked under the tarp in the truck bed, finding myself nose-to-nose with a giant wrench. When I poked my head up seconds later I found myself in the steady gaze of Minneapolis Sgt. Victoria Olson, her feet planted like the roots of an oak, her face as impassive as bark. She gave me a slight nod, then said something to one of the other cops at the command center.
“Busted by Sgt. V. Olson.”
Someone was going to roust me, and soon, I figured, so I had to send back as much detail as possible because, as far as I could tell, I was the only representative from the public on the scene.
“Smoke clearing a bit. Most damage in 2nd car. Front of train seems only scorched.”
“Grass around train burned for about 30 feet.”
“Looks like cops evacuating nearby houses. ”
Finally I saw that my tweets were getting through.
“U R doing good. Keep it comin,” came a reply.
I couldn’t tell who sent it but it didn’t matter. Someone in the newsroom was receiving. Thank God.
Another explosion. I ducked under the tarp again, this time to protect myself. Good thing, too, because I felt the ping, ping, ping of shards of glass and metal raining down on me. Unfortunately, I moved so fast that I banged my noggin on a pile of hammers. As I rubbed my forehead someone snapped the tarp away.
“What exactly are you doing, Ms. Hughes?” said the white guy with the close-cropped haircut and the FBI badge hanging around his neck.