There are a number of things you do extremely well, foremost among them you portray action wonderfully. Your scenes of physical confrontation really work and that is a rare talent these days.
–from a recent rejection letter from an agent, after reading the full manuscript (twice) of my second novel, The Rabbit Skinners.
Well, okay, then.
The following is a scene from my second novel, The Rabbit Skinners, which I’m attempting to find representation for. The scene has plenty of physical confrontation. I’ll leave it to you whether it “really works.”
Background: In Colorado Springs, James Strait is on a FBI/Homeland Security surveillance detail with two other agents of a large house wherein a fanatical religious group has stockpiled vast quantity of VX, the most toxic nerve agent ever created. Hell breaks loose when black smoke suddenly begins to plume from the house, prompting an immediate, all-out assault to stop the cult from releasing the VX.
Strait brought the van to a skidding halt in front of the iron gate. Henderson in the passenger seat, Footer in the rear. He backed up. “Hold on!” he shouted. In the three minutes since he’d seen the smoke, Strait had told the other teams about the fire in the house and ordered the emergency evacuation of the neighborhood and a full and immediate assault on the cult’s house. All available agents were to hit the compound, ASAP, in gas masks.
Strait positioned the van and bashed his foot on the pedal. The van lurched forward and slammed into the gate. There was an explosive sound as the iron lock burst and the halves of the gate shot open. Something punched the windshield and Strait’s view was disrupted by a spiderweb crack across the plastic. He thought it was shrapnel from the broken gate but then came another punch, and another, and two holes appeared on the windshield and Strait felt a hot peppering from shattered plastic on his cheeks.
“Down!” he yelled, and he and Henderson dropped on top of each other to the space between the seats just as staccato blasts hit the windshield and the air filled with shards and powdered debris. Strait sat up halfway with his head tilted, stretched out his leg to push the accelerator and reached up and grabbed the steering wheel and started driving the van blind in what he hoped what the direction of the trees nearest the house.
He could feel the tires slipping on the wet lawn and he turned the steering wheel to the left to direct the front of the van away from the house. Now came the sound of shots hitting, clank clank clank, against the side.
The van hit a tree and stopped. Strait looked out the front. They were facing into a stand of trees with the back of the van directed at the house. The windshield was mostly gone, just a few jagged bits sticking out from the edges of the frame. “Anyone hit?” Strait shouted. Henderson had wormed out from under him and was halfway into the back of the van. She looked up at him and shook her head. She had some blood coming from her nose but seemed okay. No response from Graham.
Strait grabbed the radio mic. “All teams, we’re under heavy fire. Repeat, we’re under heavy fire…”
An explosion lifted the van from underneath. He dropped the mic. He and Henderson shoved themselves through the opening where the windshield had been and rolled over the hood. Strait’s head was jerked upwards when the gas mask caught on the bumper as he fell. Strait tore off the mask and threw it to the ground and risked a look around the side of the van. He whispered to Henderson. “Just one guy out there, ten feet away. Looks like he’s got an AK and a grenade belt. Set up a distraction in those trees.”
Henderson looked around with her mouth hanging open. Her eyes were glazed. She seemed confused about where she was. Along with the blood from her nose, she had some coming from one side of her mouth. She picked up a rock. She held up the other hand toward Strait and counted off with her fingers, one, two, three, then threw the rock. The moment it hit the trees, gunfire blasted and Strait angled himself past the side of the van and dropped low and shot the man in the head.
Before the body hit the ground, Strait was sprinting toward the house. Heavy black smoke was now pumping out from the east side of the building, about forty feet away. Strait didn’t understand what the smoke meant, why there would be a fire. All he could think was that the sudden outbreak of smoke after Rabbit had warned them meant that things were melting down and the inhabitants had gone into war mode.
As he reached the house, the windows on the first floor began to explode outwards in abrupt showers of sparkling glass. Dense smoke immediately started pouring through the frames where the windows had been and he could hear a child’s voice screaming, Papa! Papa, help!
A man became visible in the smoke from the window frame closest to Strait, a hammer still raised in his hand from smashing out the glass. He was thin and frail, in overalls too large for him and he had short, grey hair and a wrinkled neck and the sight of Strait standing so close caused him to raise his hands over his head, still holding the hammer, and in a split-second of impulse that Strait could never take back he raised his MP5 and blew the man’s head off.
Hysterical shrieking erupted from inside the house as Strait sprinted to the wall and rounded the building. The smoke pouring through the windows was rising and banking toward the south like a mammoth grey-black eel. People on the second floor were knocking out more windows and shards of glass were falling all around him. He charged clear on around to the west face of the house where he found an open door and no smoke.
Four men came out the door firing pistols. James felt a hot sting in his thigh. He dropped his machine gun as he fell to his stomach and pulled from his jacket the Glock and pumped off eight shots in three seconds. Six of the shots hit exactly as he intended, and he saw the heads of three of the men burst into clouds of red. The seventh shot missed the fourth man entirely and the eighth caught him in the shoulder. The man toppled sideways and rolled in the dirt and made to get up while popping off a shot at the same moment Strait shot him in the chest. The bullet hit Strait again in the leg, in almost the same spot. He tried to stand and gasped at the roar of pain in his thigh. He fell flat on his face. He dropped his gun and was blinded by the tears that flooded his eyes. Jesus.
He swiped at his face savagely with his sleeve, snatched the Glock from the grass and pointed it at the door. Then he shoved the gun into its holster and picked up the MP5. Using his free arm for support, he forced himself up onto his uninjured leg and hopped to the door. Screams were coming from somewhere in the house. He braced himself and jumped through the doorway into a small out-room which gave way to an open staircase.
He tumbled down the stairs, blind, smacking against hard surfaces, injuries lighting up all over his body. When he came to a stop, he lay with his right cheek on a floor, lit from above with yellow light. He could see blood from his head pooling on cold concrete.
He moved the fingers of his right hand and found he was still gripping the machine gun. His left hand was squashed under his ribcage. He unfolded it and knew some of the fingers were broken.
He bit back a scream as he pushed himself up with his left hand, crouched on one leg and collapsed against the wall. He was facing a metal door that suddenly opened. A man charged out, pistol pointed at his face and Strait shot him twice in the chest.
He fired off a few more rounds into the room and yelled, “FBI! We’re coming in. You’re outnumbered. Throw down your weapons and lay on the floor if you want to live.”
No sound came from inside. Strait took a deep breath and hopped around the man’s body and into the room. He zig-zagged, firing in the air. He made for a pillar-like object near the door and propped himself up on it. It was a huge metal pipe, wider than his own body. It reached almost to the ceiling ten feet above him, then bent into another, equally large pipe running perpendicular that ran across the ceiling and led to a huge metal box affixed to the wall. Strait leaned against the pipe and peeked around it. He froze.
The canisters that filled the room were six feet tall and lined up in rows at least ten deep and ten wide. They were connected to each other with a network of electrical wires and flexible aluminum pipes that all wended around and met at to a central container, which looked to have been jury-rigged out of a boiler from an old steam engine train. The boiler in turn had emerging from its side a broader pipe that fed into the wide one Strait was leaning against. His gaze followed again the length of the man-width pipe to where it bent flush to the ceiling and continued to the large metal box, along whose lower surface he could discern a rigging of wires. With a jolt, Strait realized what he was looking at.
The canisters that contained the VX agent were rigged to feed their contents into a central conveyance, likely rendered from oil to an aerosol dust, which then led to a giant fan, where the VX would be blown into the air. On a breezy day like today the aerosol would blow southwards to descend leisurely in a massive toxic cloud over much of Colorado Springs.
Strait glanced around. He seemed to be alone in the room. He could see only one door, the one he’d entered through. Maybe he could just stand here, propped up against the pipe, gun pointed at the entrance, and drive off any cult members who tried to come inside to set this thing off. Wait for the cavalry to arrive.
Trouble was, he was at an angle that made it hard to aim at the doorway. Anyone coming in could easily swing to the right and hide behind the canisters, which Strait absolutely did not want to risk shooting at. He shuddered to think how he’d been firing into the air as he entered the room.
He needed to get into a better position. He saw, leaning against the nearest wall, a few lengths of aluminum pipe. He hopped the few steps to the wall and leaned against it. He could use one of the pipes as a cane, but only if he could grip it. His left hand was useless. Most of the fingers were pointing at odd angles. He had no choice but not hold his gun and hope someone didn’t come charging in while he got himself across the room.
He let his MR5 hang by its shoulderstrap and picked up a piece of the pipe. It was about seven feet long. He grasped the pipe and hobbled painfully across the room. He searched for something big and durable he could crouch behind.
Then he saw the girl.
She sat cross-legged on the floor at the edge of the canisters, concealed in the shadows. She wasn’t more than nine years old. She was thin and very white with pale blue eyes that stared up at him. Her tangled, straw-colored hair and her pink prairie dress were splattered with blood.
In her hands was a metal box. A transmitter with a flip switch and wires coming out of it reaching to a relay mount with more wires that spread out to all the canisters.
“Wo, there. It’s okay, little girl,” said Strait, and he felt stupid for saying it, because clearly nothing was okay. “I’m not going to hurt you. What’s your name?”
The girl tensed and her lips pressed together more tightly and she placed her finger on the switch. “Stay away,” she said. Fire in her eyes.
“Okay, okay, I’ll stay away. I’m not going to hurt you. Please, please, please, little girl. Don’t do that. It’s very dangerous.”
“You’re a devil,” the girl responded. Her voice was quavering.
Strait tried to smile. “Me? I’m really not. I’m just trying to make sure no one gets hurt.”
Tears dripped down her cheeks. “Liar. You’re here to kill us. You killed my papa.”
“Liar! I saw you! My papa was just hammering out the windows for us to get away and you killed him!”
Strait cleared his throat. “I didn’t come here to hurt anyone. And I know that you don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“He couldn’t hurt anyone and you killed him! Coward!”
“Please listen. You pull that switch and all that poison in those cans will kill thousands of people.”
From outside, sirens could be heard.
“Devils,” she said miserably.
“I can see why you think that. I wish you’d tell me your name.”
“I don’t tell my name to a devil.”
“I swear, I’m not here to hurt you. If you release that gas now, you’ll kill your own family too. And yourself.”
“We all got masks. We’re ready for when the Devil comes.”
“Your family is getting arrested now. So they won’t be able to put on their gas masks. There’s a fire up there too. Why is there a fire?”
“Sister Laurel buzzed in the alarm, so it’s time for war. Some didn’t want it. Some did. Papa didn’t want it. He was trying to stop it. They got in a fight and knocked over the candles.”
The sirens grew louder.
Where are Amelia and Graham? Where are my assault teams? But then he realized the last thing he wanted was anyone else barreling down the steps. This girl was on a tripwire. It wouldn’t take much for her to pull that switch. He couldn’t have anyone coming in here. It was up to him, and him alone, to talk this girl down, fast.
“Little girl, please…”
Then he saw the child’s eyes go wide and her head turn just as someone shouted from behind, “James!”
Praise for The Language of Bears:
“A smart, literate, odd, and skillfully written tour de force.” – Kirkus Reviews
“It hits almost every single one of my wants when it comes to a fiction book and then some. Who knew I needed pig brains and apple juice to be happy?” –MI Book Reviews