I’m currently 48,000-plus words into revising Snoqualmie Pass, a thriller featuring middle-aged helicopter firefighting pilot Ed Kline whose adult son Lewis disappears after being swept up by a right-wing militia. Here’s an early scene.
Lewis sat in the middle of the classroom, same place as always, a dozen PUMAs around him and Captains Green, White, and Red sitting facing them from the front. Green had written the day’s warrior saying on the whiteboard.
“When one has nothing to lose, one becomes courageous. We are timid only when there is something we can still cling to.”
Indoctrination 101. Perfect. Just so he wouldn’t look like some damn disciple staring at the captains and panting to hear the daily wisdom, he scanned the room. Men wearing identical button-down khaki shirts over white tee-shirts, army green cotton canvas trousers, black work boots, white cotton socks, beards, haircuts performed a week ago by Doyle who’d drawn the lowest card after a long day of labor. On plywood walls more warrior quotes plus topo maps and highway maps. A collage of photos of them training, a group photo two months old. Through the doorway across the hall a barracks devoid of dust and debris.
They had already done thirty minutes of exercise, followed by a five-mile run, and although they’d taken showers the night before the scent of sweat tinged the room still baking from yesterday’s heat. They had performed their morning house chores, too, and eaten and cleaned after breakfast.
Captain Green–very tall, white beard like the hairs on a corn husk, brown eyes behind deep sockets–rose from his desk on the left and pointed to the words on the whiteboard. Standing on the side of the room, Hernandez raised the camera, its red light indicating “record.”
“How’s that quote apply to us, gentlemen?” he asked in a high-pitched voice. “Be prepared to answer in 20 seconds.”
You’re trying to empty us. But Lewis knew he’d better have a different answer than that.
“Soldier Nelson,” Green called after the time had ticked by.
Nelson stood at his desk. “Captain Green, sir, we have surrendered our old lives. We have given ourselves to a just cause.”
“Thank you, Soldier Nelson. Soldier Doyle.”
Nelson sat and Doyle rose.
“Captain Green, sir, we have no contacts beyond our brothers in this room. We are the head of the hammer.”
“Thank you, Soldier Doyle. Captain White, you have the floor.”
Another Tuesday PUMA profile followed. This time Soldier Beckham joined the captains at the front. White paced back and forth, wheeled a sudden quarter turn, stared them all down one man at a time like the glory of God almighty and then wielded his preacher’s voice.
“When I think of Soldier Beckham, how like all of you he played the game, honest, hard-working, and the big two-ton shaft he received for his troubles, it burns my heart with anger, shapes my hands into fists.
“Beckham did well in high school, went to college, went to work for a little lumber mill, a loyal employee, missed three days of work in 12 years and then boom! The mill goes bust. He and his wife and their girl had a house, couldn’t make the mortgage, the banks repossessed it, and the next thing you know, they’re living with his in-laws at their house and not his own. Twelve years of work–gone, worse than nothing, because now he had a bad credit rating. Eventually the stress robbed him of his wife, robbed him of his daughter, and Beckham found himself alone.”
Lewis tuned out the rest of the speech, recalled how two weeks ago he’d stood at the front, facing men who’d taken up arms and prepared to kill. White painted him as the college-kid-with-no-prospects, thanks to politicians in cahoots with multinational corporations. Lewis knew he was a symptom of something bad and maybe White diagnosed the cause.
But Lewis no longer endorsed the cure.
Later, after a stop at the armory, Lewis and the rest of Red Squad stood in an arc at the shaded edge of a Ponderosa Pine forest, squinting at Captain Red, who stood in a clearing with the sun behind him. On the west edge a false building front with windows and a door. In front of it an old white Plymouth Voyager.
“Variation B, Soldier Wilhelmson–what is it?” A lump of Red Man chew in the left cheek made Red’s face appear lopsided. His light brown beard hung several inches below the chin, pointy and uneven, like a torn rag.
“Law enforcement…Captain Red, sir…public or private, or fire or paramedic personnel visible within the area, including the mall parking lot.”
“Correct. The response?”
“How?” Red spat in front of him a stream of brown juice.
“By calling my wheel’s loose, sir. Or if it’s Soldier Kline, he’ll say your wheel’s loose.”
“Correct. Be vigilant. Stupidity will get us into a mess, but it won’t get us out. Where we’re goin’ Captain White and I have studied, and that time of mornin’ you most likely won’t have any loose wheels, but you must assume Variation B to be present until you’re certain it is not. ”
“Variation C, Soldier Ferguson–what is it?”
“Captain Red, sir, guards are down, a man steps out the bank.”
“Correct. Our response?”
“Correct, regrettably correct. Why?”
“Could be a plainclothes officer. We cannot take a chance.”
“Correct. Reds, in case you have not heard, Captain White has taken steps to warn people away from multi-national banks. Everyone in that building should know exactly who they’re givin’ their money to. They’ve been told it’s risky to be doing business with that kinda outfit. Now we understand most folks won’t pay no attention to the warning, ‘cause nothin’s happened yet. That’ll change. But most folks have enough sense to stay inside if they hear gunfire. Someone steppin’ out into it…that’s someone who’s either a threat or hopelessly stupid. Chances of Variation C are less than 20 percent. However, we’ll game that scenario first.”
“Now Soldier Kline, I never thought I’d see so many variations by the guard in the cab. I don’t know what you’re gonna cook up today, but you keep challenging us. Red squad members, assume your positions.” He spat again.
How about the variation where I just walk the hell out of here? Good-bye, loony bin. But then–hello, electronic surveillance perimeter. That was a problem.
After lunch, the same routine–The World According to Captain White.
“The federalistas are selling you out with illegal treaties. When the fat boys holler jump, they jump, and when they say crap on your workers they assume the squatting position in due haste, right over the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the words of our Founding Fathers.
“What kind of government does that to its own people?” White raised his voice. “That’s no damn democracy! It makes my blood boil. Someone has got to stand for those 10,000 workers next door to us and the thousands more in our own state. Who will stand for them?”
“Pumas!” the men called in well-rehearsed unison. Lewis mouthed the word but gave it no voice.
“Someone’s got to stand for the millions whose factories have been shuttered, whose farms have been swallowed. Who will stand for them?”
Blah blah blah.
“Soldier Lewis, I asked you a question.” Captain White and everyone else in the room was staring at him.
“Beg pardon, Sir. Could you repeat the question?” Damn–White noticed everything.
“I can, soldier, but I don’t see why I should. I’ll come back to you. Be ready when I do. Soldier Marquez, what have we learned in regard to these treaties that our false representatives have used to cheapen our lives?”
““Sir, only local citizens have the right to establish or agree to treaties or laws that directly affect them.”
“A basic truth, Soldier Marquez. And now Soldier Kline, a chance to redeem yourself. What is the legal definition of local?”
“Sir, an area not to exceed 50 square miles.”
“Indeed, Soldier Kline.” White took several pensive steps toward the left side of the room, then stopped and spoke in a weary, pained voice.
“Once again, the federalistas exceeded their authority. And the states went along with it, and the counties, and even if Soldier Beckham’s community didn’t agree, even if they were most definitely and most profoundly affected, they…did…not…have…a voice.
“‘Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes, but when a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to reduce their citizens to absolute despotism, it is the right of the citizens, indeed, it is their duty, to throw off such a government and to provide new guards for their future security.’ I ask you all, who will stand, though the cost be as dear as life itself, to throw off such a government?”