I’m still working on editing “Tangled Web,” but thought I’d take a break to share an excerpt and to let you know about the Summer Sale going on at Smashwords. All of my books will be discounted or free for the month of July — feel free to share the news if you know any other book lovers who don’t mind my weird blend of the real world and Christian views. Lots of other authors will be discounting their books, too, so check it out if you’re looking to stock your book shelves for summer.
Now, with that out of the way, here’s an overview of “Tangled Web:”
Winston High School is under cyberattack. A hacked blog shares a disturbing view. Online videos expose secrets and threats that begin to tear the school community apart. Reporter Emily O’Brien is assigned the story, along with fellow reporter Sarah Lowman, and they soon find themselves at odds with police as to how to handle coverage. As the media attention grows, the threats begin to escalate and Emily attracts the attention of an intelligent, but disturbed individual working from the shadows. But when Emily begins to back away, the shadowy threat becomes all too real, striking out at Emily and those she loves.
And here is an excerpt:
I got to work early the next morning to catch up on some assignments before heading to court for the day. I had hearings both in the morning and afternoon. But those plans went out the window with a phone call.
“Just a tip,” the caller said. “You need to head over to the high school.”
“Why? Who is this?”
The line went dead. I looked at the clock. I had about an hour before I had to leave for court, plenty of time to make a detour. Sarah wasn’t here yet so I texted her about the tip, then walked over to the school. Students were arriving so traffic was nuts. I maneuvered through the cars and groups of kids until I reached the front steps. A group of students gathered just inside the front entrance, so big of a crowd that at first I didn’t see it. But once I heard the students whispering, I knew it was something bad. I pushed my way to the front. It sat under a large, glass trophy case, almost like a shrine. A doll in a Winston High cheerleader uniform hanging by her neck from one end of a football goal post. The doll was small and had light brown hair like Bethany Henry. Another doll dressed like a cheerleader, this one with red hair, was hanging from the other end. Behind the display were blown up stills from the video of Moira Marcini and Bethany Henry, both in their underwear. Red paint had been slashed over both of them, with just one word: whores.
Everyone just stared and whispered at the display, in awe of its creepiness. I wondered if the girls had seen it yet. Or if they’d contacted their moms. I backed out of the crowd only to bump into the principal, Larry Bowman. “Wait here,” he said.
“Okay, folks, let’s move along to your lockers.” He started breaking up the students and sending them to their lockers. The two assistant principals, along with Officer Janke, were outside on the steps, directing students to other entrances. As the kids moved out, Bowman approached me.
“Why don’t you head down to Joanne’s office? The police are on their way.”
“Sure,” I said, but I lingered over the display. “What’s going on? I mean, this is so bizarre.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve been here twenty-eight years and I’ve never seen anything like this. Kids these days.”
I took a last look then walked to the office. I texted Bill with the basics of where I was and that I’d probably miss my hearing this morning. It was a status hearing for a guy working as a handyman at a senior citizen center, then helping himself to a check or two from the residents’ bank books. He never took too much from any one person but added together, he’d taken a few grand from the residents. Bill said he’d send someone else to cover or I could follow up later. He wanted me to stay put for now.
A few minutes later, Sarah joined me. Her dark hair highlighted the paleness of her face, her brown eyes wide. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“That’s really scary,” she said. “Those dolls.”
“I know. I can take the lead here, if you want.”
She nodded. “Thanks.”
“Do you want to go back to the office?”
She shook her head hard. “It’s just the first time I’ve covered something like this. Usually the scariest thing I face is a budget hearing.”
“Well, those are pretty scary. Look, this is likely just a prank. It’s not like the horror movies where some serial killer is lurking in the shadows. That’s just the movies. This is probably the class clown hoping to get school canceled for the day. But he better pray he doesn’t get caught.”
Mitch Duncan walked in after about ten minutes and greeted us. Joanne came in next with Larry Bowman on her heels. Demira Janke brought up the rear. We sat around the conference table in Joanne’s office.
“So how did you…?” She looked at Sarah and me.
“I got a call this morning suggesting I come to the school. I just walked in to check in at the office when I saw the crowd of kids around the display. The call came in around seven-fifteen, seven-twenty. It was on the early side but I knew students started arriving then so I came over. How did no one see this sooner?”
Joanne sighed. “I don’t know. The secretaries and administration usually comes in around seven-thirty. We usually open the main doors then. That’s the same time the students begin to arrive in force. But the athletic wing is open at six-thirty for the weight room and for practices. Any one of them could have come in that way and walked into this area.”
“Do we know it’s a student?”
Her head shot up. “What do you mean?”
“We keep assuming it’s a kid but really it could be anyone. It wouldn’t even have to be a member of the school community.”
Everyone was quiet for a few heartbeats. “I really wish I could have convinced the board to install security cameras,” Joanne broke the silence. “But I could only get them to approve ones for the parking lots.”
“That might be a start,” said Mitch. “We could see who arrived early, see if anyone was carrying in anything suspicious.”
“I’ll get you the video footage,” she said. She turned to me. “I’d also like you to put something in the paper that we’re going to lock down the building so that only the main entrance is open. We’ve always left side doors open in the past for athletics or other activities. That changes today.”
“Of course,” I said. “We’ll post it on the web right away, but it should be in print this afternoon. Dr. Benning, I’m not sure we need to go into detail about the display but I think we need to address that something happened again. Or parents are going to be calling and Facebook will light up with rumors. Can we talk a little on the record?”
“Yes, of course we can. Let me get Sergeant Duncan the video footage first.”
She walked out of the room.
“Do you think I could take a peek?” I asked him.
“Not on your life. This is an active investigation.”
“Oh, come on. Off the record. You know I used to work the education beat. Sarah works it now. We’ve spoken to tons of these kids. We may know someone that you don’t.”
“I am sure school personnel will know everyone on camera. No need for you to waste your time.”
It had been worth a shot. “Can I call you about it this afternoon?”
He hesitated. “I guess.”
“Look, Mitch. Can I call you Mitch or do I have to call you Detective Duncan? I know we didn’t see eye to eye last summer about Holly Brennan but we still have to work together so can we bury the hatchet? It’s fine you don’t want to show me the video. I get it. But I know you’re going to be looking at it so would it kill you to just say something like “we are pursuing a lead based on video surveillance?” Or just tell me it didn’t pan out and I’ll print nothing. I’m not going to burn you in the paper. That doesn’t help me at all because then I’m burning my bridges with Chief Chapel and the fire chief and everyone else in your office. And life becomes infinitely harder for me. I’m just trying to do my job. You are doing your job. We won’t always agree with each other but that doesn’t mean we can’t act like professionals.”
“Are you saying I’m not being professional?”
“Because I’m not sure how professional it is for reporters to harass citizens and accuse them of being rapists.”
“He was a rapist!”
“But you didn’t know that. You had no proof. And following your gut doesn’t count. I could have gotten fired for helping you as much as I did.”
“No one was going to fire you once we found Holly.”
He sighed and rubbed his temples. Joanne came back in the room, picking up immediately on the tension. She glanced back and forth between us, then handed a flash drive to Mitch.
“I downloaded everything we have currently in the system. It will be two weeks of footage. I can go back further if you need it. We keep everything else archived.”
“Thanks, Dr. Benning. I will be in touch if we find anything.” He got up and started to leave, then glanced back at me. “Ms. O’Brien, why don’t you come by the station at about four? I’m sure we’ll have finished our review by then and I’ll have had time to talk to Dr. Benning. We can talk then.”
“Thank you, Detective Duncan.”
I wasn’t sure if he was gaslighting me or if he was serious but I would go over to the station at four just the same. I glanced over at Sarah, who was taking notes. “Do you want to talk to Dr. Benning?”
She nodded. “I can take it from here.”
I smiled at her, glad she’d recovered from her initial queasiness. “I’m going to head back to the paper so I can start the story. We’ll finish up when you get back.” I stood to leave, shaking Joanne’s hand. “We’ll get through this. We’ll talk more soon.”
She sighed. “No offense, Emily, but I really hope this will pass and I won’t see you again for a while except to say hello at the grocery store.”
When Sarah returned to the office, we incorporated her comments from Dr. Benning to the other information we had. Both Sarah and I had covertly taken a photo of the display with our phones – since she had a smart phone, hers was of much better quality. We showed it to Bill and he quickly agreed we shouldn’t print the photo. I’d wanted it to search for clues about what was going on but was relieved I wouldn’t be asked to share it publicly, particularly because I guessed the moms would stalk, torture and murder me if I did. We also kept the details vague, not naming either girl. We did a sidebar on the new rules for entering the high school, then passed on the copy to Bill for review.
At that point, I put aside the high school news and called the state’s attorney’s office to find out what happened at the hearing that morning. The guy had changed his plea to guilty so I wrote up a blurb on that. I grabbed a quick bite to eat, then went to the courthouse for another hearing that afternoon. This one was drug-related but the defense was doing an end run to try to get the case thrown out, saying it was unconstitutional for the police to have brought in the drug dog. The judge disagreed and set a date for jury selection.
At a little before four, I walked over to the police station and asked to see Mitch Duncan. I half expected the receptionist to tell me that he had left for the day, but instead she called his line and he came out to the lobby.
“Come on back,” he said.
I followed him to his desk which was piled with case files, but relatively neat. A picture of him with his wife and kid sat next to his phone. I didn’t know he was married, though he probably didn’t know much about my personal life either. His wife looked familiar but it took me a minute to place her.
“Your wife teaches English and journalism at the high school, right?”
“I didn’t make the connection before. I’ve met her. She’s nice,” I said. “Cute kid.”
“Thanks.” He sat at the desk and pulled up a chair so I was facing him. “So. Nothing on the video. Lots of kids going in and out but no one suspicious or carrying anything suspicious.”
“Yeah. So I’m thinking he – or she – probably parked on the street.”
“Do you think that’s because he – or she – knew about the cameras?”
“That’s my guess. Someone ballsy enough to do this at the school and smart enough to get away with it is going to have done their homework. Don’t you think?”
I was surprised he was asking my opinion but I accepted the olive branch. “I agree. There are lots of little side streets and no one would notice anything that early in the morning. We did ask in the paper for anyone with information to call the police. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
He rocked back in his chair. “I’ve been thinking about what you said, about this not being another kid. What made you say that?”
“Well, I think it probably is another kid. It has that feel. But, I think it’s dangerous to assume that and ignore other avenues.”
“Teachers, staff, somebody off the street. I’ve said for years that the security at the high school is lax. They can’t really help it. It’s a big school with lots of entrances and lots of activities. They’d either have to treat it like prison or do what they do now and hope for the best. This isn’t a knock on Joanne. She’s great. But a few people on that board are old school and they see the high school as the center of the community. They don’t want it locked down. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything Demira Janke hasn’t said a dozen times. It’s why she’s there, right?”
He nodded. “Yeah, she spends a lot of her day just walking the halls. The security cameras campus-wide would have been a good move but I guess the cost was astronomical and the board wanted to spend it on iPads.”
“I get it. But if you name a time, date and room number, I guarantee you I could get into that building and meet you there undetected. Day or night. So anyone one with a grudge, anyone a little off his rock could pretty much have the run of the place.”
“But they’re targeting high school girls.”
“Which is why I think ultimately, it’s another kid. If the target was a teacher or a secretary or Joanne, I’d think it was an adult.”
“But some guys really like young girls.”
“That’s true, which is why I said we explore all avenues.”
“Well, if you hear anything let me know. I’ll do the same.”
“Sorry the video didn’t pan out. I bet that was a long day looking at that.”
He offered me a half smile. “If I’d been the principal, I could have given out a ton of detentions for smoking on campus.” He paused. “I wish that’s what we were dealing with.”
I agreed and left, walking back to the paper to report to Sarah and Bill that the police had nothing from the video. I noticed Mitch had assumed this was still ongoing and not a one-time prank. I had the strong sense that he was right.
Hope you enjoyed this first look at “Tangled Web!” I plan to post more soon. Happy reading!