If you read this excerpt, please let me hear your comments and suggestions. I’m currently a bit more than half-way through the first draft, so now is the time when you can influence the story.
An aged gray van winds along the two-lane highway meandering through thick stands of evergreen forest on the west side of the Northern California Coastal Range; the road’s curves occasionally breaking through the trees, revealing breathtaking vistas of the Pacific Ocean below.
These impressive views are unseen by the half-dozen passengers in the windowless back of the van. Hardened criminals ─ the worst of the worst ─ these men care little for nature or scenery as they make their way to an extended stay at Pelican Bay, California’s notorious super-max prison.
Chains clank as the shackled men shift uncomfortably. A few of the prisoners manage to maintain desultory conversations with their bench mates, but most preferred to remain silent, only muttering occasional curses in complaint about the hard seats or the guard’s driving.
Heavily muscled and tattooed, Carver Schramm is one of the most silent of the prisoners, as no one shares his bare metal seat.
Schramm is headed for a long stretch in solitary confinement as the result of his bad behavior while in the San Francisco County Jail awaiting sentencing for a murder conviction. His shackles do not connect to those of the other men, but, instead, anchor him on either side to stout iron staples welded into the van’s frame. His feet are similarly restrained.
Even his fellow inmates recognize this man as a character best avoided. No one has ventured a word to Carver since they entered the prison shuttle.
Schramm wasn’t bothered by this lack of conversation. He had done time in solitary before, more than once. He was comfortable with his own thoughts, thoughts that would make those around him decidedly uncomfortable, if they were aware of them.
At this moment, those inner voices raged about only two things: revenge and escape.
Inside Carver’s mind images swirled without structure. His unfocused fury prevented his thoughts from coalescing into coherent plans. His desire to strike out at anyone and everyone grew with each mile the van covered.
Although outwardly calm, inside he was like a newly caged predator, gnawing on the bars of its cage and taking a swipe at anyone who approached.
Pelican Bay was built for just such human aberrations as Carver Schramm. No one has ever escaped from the maximum security portion of the prison, although a few have broken away from the lower level security of the outer ring of the complex reserved for non-violent offenders.
The van took a hairpin turn too fast, throwing the passengers against one another and initiating a round of obscene catcalls.
Carver’s spirits lifted at the thought of the van crashing and giving him an opportunity to get away. He never considered the possibility of being killed in a wreck. Like most sociopaths, Schramm thought of himself as invulnerable.
As it happened, the van and its malignant cargo made it to the prison without mishaps.
Their chains unclasped from the van, the men shuffled out and were escorted into the processing center for body searches, showers and prison clothes, before being taken to their cell assignments.
Carver Schramm felt his desperation rising as each step brought him closer to the clang of his solitary cell door. He knew from past prison experiences he wasn’t willing to endure more years of the jungle atmosphere among the prisoners or the constant prying eyes and bullying of the guards. He would escape, somehow.
The escorts were being given instructions by one of the prison staff who was holding a tablet computer containing the new prisoners’ cell assignments.
Carver began to follow the others, but his guard was stopped and directed to take him down a different corridor.
Schramm supposed this must be a short-cut to the solitary confinement he was promised, so he was surprised to find himself being led out into the minimum security courtyard.
“What’s this? A tantalizing glimpse of how the other guys live before being plunged into Hell?” he muttered under his breath.
He was incredulous when the guard handed him a packet of “house rules” and thrust him into what looked like a cheap motel room, already occupied by a small middle-aged man.
“Here’s your new roomie, Halverson. Show him the ropes and keep him out of trouble,” the guard instructed before shutting the solid security door with a slam.
Rather than the bars he’d expected, Schramm saw a small wire-mesh reinforced window in the door.
Halverson, who had been sitting at a desk reading, observed his new roommate with some alarm.
Carver’s dark shoulder-length hair, framing a face and neck covered with tattoos, was an unusual sight on this side of the prison.
When Halverson stood to attempt to shake Schramm’s hand, the newcomer towered head and shoulders above the smaller man.
“William Halverson here, uh…welcome,” he said, looking up.
Carver sneered contemptuously at the man’s outthrust hand.
“Well,” William said, drawing back his hand, “I think you will find things pretty comfortable here. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to help.”
He returned to his chair and Carver threw the packet of personal items onto the nearest bed.
“That’s my bed. You can have that other one. They are identical,” Halverson said.
“Then you won’t mind moving, will you?” Carver said.
His voice was soft, but the look accompanying it pierced Halverson to the marrow.
William was certain this room assignment was a mistake. All his previous roommates had been decent sorts. He decided to fill out a new roommate request later that day, during the recreation period.
“No, of course. Not at all. I’ll just take the other bed. Um, er, I didn’t get your name.”
“Schramm,” Carver replied, looking out the mesh covered window and fighting down an urge to beat the smaller man to death with the metal desk chair.
He knew it must be some sort of computer snafu bringing him to this room, instead of to a concrete block hole in solitary. Sooner or later, the mistake would be discovered and he would be moved. In the meantime, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
Feigning an uncharacteristic congeniality and attempting a friendly smile, Schramm sat on his chosen bunk and leaned toward William as he spoke.
“So, what’s the drill around here?”
The little man gulped, barely swallowing down a scream, as the oddly grimacing visage loomed near.
“The drill? Um, you mean the regular routine?”
Carver wanted to smash his fist into this stupid pipsqueak’s idiot face, but, instead, forced his mouth into an even more grotesque contortion and nodded.
“That’s right. What sort of activities you got? Do you ever get out in the fresh air?”
“We will be released to the yard and recreation center in mid-afternoon, just before dinner.”
“You got a cushy set-up here. So nice, they probably don’t even have many guards, huh?”
“Oh, we have plenty of guards. The security staff here is very competent. Of course, there are security cameras covering most of the grounds and buildings.”
“Most? Where don’t they cover?” Schramm asked.
“A few years ago there was a fellow who walked away from the garbage dump, when it wasn’t covered. I imagine that situation has been rectified by now, though.”
“Just walked away, huh? Did they catch the guy?”
“Oh, yes. He was moved to the super-max. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to risk that. One hears such horror stories about the place…and, of course, no one’s ever escaped from in there.”
“Yeah, that’s what I hear, too. What sort of activities you got in that rec center?”
“Oh, it’s very well equipped. There’s the gymnasium with workout equipment…you’ll probably like that,” Carver gave him a look and Halvorson hurried on, “and there’s the library and the TV lounge area.”
“Library, huh? You got computers? They let you go on-line?”
“Only certain sites. There have to be filters or some of the men, even here, might take advantage and indulge their baser instincts.”
“Oh, sure. Ya gotta guard against them basic instincts. Well, thanks. Guess I’ll take a rest before rec time.”
To Halvorson’s relief, Schramm swung his feet onto the bed and turned his face to the wall.
An hour later, the doors buzzed and opened.
A loudspeaker directed the men to leave their rooms and go out to the courtyard.
The inmates were mustered for a head count while the rooms were being inspected then were free to jog around the outdoor track, toss footballs or shoot hoops. Those who preferred could use the recreation center facilities.
Carver followed William into the library, elbowed a smaller man out of his way and grabbed a seat in front of a computer.
Entering a search on “Northern California prisons,” he was able to pull up an overhead view of Pelican Bay, including the area in which he was housed.
After getting the information he wanted, Carver stood up and left, turning the computer over to the next impatient inmate.
Newly hired prison security guard, Boyd Lenninger, leaned against a green metal dumpster. Being low man on the seniority totem pole, he was assigned to patrol the trash collection area during recreation times until a new security camera could be installed.
Bored and resentful of the tedious duty, he was taking advantage of the rare privacy to take an unauthorized smoke break.
He did not hear the man creeping up behind him, until it was too late.
Naidenne Davidson, her wild red-gold curls bouncing with every step, jogged down the potholed side street, hurrying to get to the crosswalk before the only traffic light on Oregon’s Highway 101 changed to red.
She knew the crosswalk light stayed green only long enough for a person to dash desperately across, before it switched back for another interminable through-traffic cycle.
If she missed that light, she was going to be late, again.
Eskaletha hated it when any of the women arrived after the meeting began, and she wasn’t shy about letting everyone know it.
Naidenne was in luck! The little walking-man symbol was still glowing when she stepped between the lines of the crossing.
She increased her pace when the red hand began to flash its warning, just as a white and black Cooper Mini, anticipating the green light, surged forward and struck her a glancing blow, spinning her around and sending her skidding along the pavement.
Naidenne scrambled on all fours to the sidewalk and sat on the curb gasping for breath. When she pulled her toes up to protect them from the vehicles now rushing past, she noticed blood running down her legs, jagged holes in her capris and a painful throbbing in her knees.
By steadying herself on the signal pole she managed to ease to her feet.
Dazed, Naidenne wobbled along the sidewalk toward the meeting location; an old dockside processing plant converted into the town’s shopping mall, and a hoped-for tourist magnet, it was only a block away.
Once inside the mall, she made her way to the Boatworks Coffee Shop and stood swaying in the entrance, trying to regain her composure before joining the others.
Jostled from behind, Naidenne turned to see her friend, Judy Falls, another tardy member of the group.
As usual, Judy’s lank and faded blond hair had escaped its elastic scrunchie and drooped messily over her chubby cheeks.
Naidenne was happy to see her kind-hearted friend, even though Judy’s wrinkled organic all-cotton blouse and peasant skirt were badly in need of a wash and her leather thong sandals revealed toes coated with dirt.
A throw-back to the hippy era, who somehow managed to maintain her voluptuously unrestrained figure on a strict vegan diet, Judy’s politics were extreme, but her genuine love of the Lord earned her a grudging tolerance, if not outright welcome, from her husband’s conservative Presbyterian congregation.
“Excuse me! Oh, Naidenne, you look awful. What happened to you?” Judy asked. “Come on, we need to find you a chair.”
Naidenne allowed the shorter woman to lead her into the café’s banquet room.
She eased onto a chair near the doorway. As she’d feared, the meeting had already begun.
“Just a minute, Olivette, I don’t think we have everyone’s attention,” Eskaletha Evans arched her eyebrows as she addressed the tiny woman standing beside her at the front of the room.
“You can resume reading the minutes when Judy and Naidenne finally get settled.”
All eyes turned toward the late arrivals.
Realizing something was the matter, many of the ladies left their seats and surrounded Naidenne and Judy, asking questions and exclaiming in dismay over Naidenne’s bloody knees and ruined clothes.
“Ladies! Please, can we have some decorum?” Eskaletha spoke over the commotion and clapped her hands.
Her commands ignored, she strode toward the back of the room, a glower forming on her handsome ebony features.
In high dudgeon, Eskaletha bore a striking resemblance to a bust of Queen Nefertiti, only without the headdress.
“What’s going on here? Can’t you girls ever take our meetings seriously?”
The group parted, allowing their president to see what was causing this uncharacteristic display of anarchy.
“Goodness, Naidenne! What’s happened to you?” she exclaimed.
Turning to the others, she asked, “Is someone getting a first aid kit?”
Eskaletha crouched down and whispered, “Do you need to see a doctor, Deenie? Ooh, your poor knees.”
Elizabeth Gilbert gathered up napkins and a glass of water and dropped to her knees on the other side of Naidenne to dab at the wounds.
While not a large woman, Elizabeth’s upright posture, neatly tailored shirtwaist dress, and sensible shoes, with her iron gray hair twisted into a tidy knot, provided a strong, capable presence appreciated by the members of the United Methodist Church where she and her husband were co-pastors.
“These cuts don’t look very deep, but she’s lost a couple of layers of skin,” Elizabeth explained to the others.
“Well, you’re the nurse practitioner in the group, so I guess you should know, but they look pretty bad to me,” Judy responded. “Darn it! I forgot my bag when I left the manse. I always carry a jar of my homemade organic herbal salve. Do you think we should get her to the ER?”
“No, Liz is right,” Naidenne said. “It’s just road rash. Sure does burn, though.”
One of the women came back with the first aid kit from the Boatworks kitchen.
Elizabeth soon had Naidenne’s wounds cleaned and bandaged.
“We can’t do much for your pants, I’m afraid. Were they favorites?” Judy asked.
“No. Just a pair I found in the last tag sale we ran at our church. I liked them because they are supposed to be cropped, so no one can tell if they are too short for my long legs, but no great loss. Thanks.”
“So, tell us what happened,” Eskaletha, now back in control, prompted.
“I guess you could say I was the victim of a hit-and-run,” Naidenne said, shaking her head.
“What? You’re kidding. Someone knocked you down and just drove off?” Judy asked.
“I was crossing the highway, when this little car jumped the light and sort of side-swiped me and just kept going.”
“Did you get his license number?”
“What kind of a car was it?”
“We should call the State Troopers.”
The women were all talking at once, until Naidenne held up her hand, so she could reply.
“I didn’t get the license number and don’t have much of a description of the car, except it was some sort of two-toned compact, or sub-compact. Anyway, it wasn’t going fast enough to do any real harm. It just knocked me off balance and I fell.”
“Well, if you’re sure…I still think we should report it,” Olivette offered.
Olivette Vernon was the oldest member of the little group. She and her husband, Kendall, had served the Bannoch Reformed Church for his entire career. Her small stature and mouse-like demeanor belied her tremendous faith, which was matched by her hard-work and dedication to her church.
“If all the excitement is over, perhaps we can resume our seats and get on with our meeting,” Eskaletha stated, walking back to the podium.
Olivette scurried closely behind.
“I think it is just awful the way these tourists speed on the highway through town, polluting the air and scattering trash all over creation. Sometimes they don’t even stop for that light,” Judy commented.
“I know visitors mean more income for the town, but it was nicer before we had so much traffic,” Elizabeth agreed.
“Tourists, traffic and all the riffraff coming from California; the Coast isn’t the same, anymore,” Gwennie Barthlette, wife of the Trinity Nazarene Church minister, spoke up.
“And what about all the underpaid and exploited workers commuting to that new big box store between here and Tillamook?” Judy added.
“Ladies! If we can please return to our seats?” Eskaletha called out.
“You may resume the reading of the minutes of our last meeting, Olivette.”
“I’m afraid I don’t remember where I left off, Madam President.”
“Just start over at the beginning. Some of us missed that part, anyway.”
“Oh…good idea,” Olivette smiled in relief, squared her narrow shoulders and began reading the minutes of the last meeting in her high, reedy voice.
After the earlier commotion, the ladies sat obediently through the formalities, followed by an orderly discussion of plans for their next community project.
When they were finished, Eskaletha asked a blessing on the refreshments and adjourned this monthly session of the Bannoch First Ladies Club.
Jostling around the snack table to get first dibs on one of Olivette’s famous homemade Danish pastries, the women filled their plates before settling in for a serious gabfest, the real purpose of the gathering.
“How are your knees, now, Naidenne?” Judy asked around a mouthful of pastry.
“Much better, thanks.”
“I blame all the yahoos coming north from California these days. They all drive like they own the road,” Gwennie said.
“Could you tell if the car’s plates were out of state, Deenie?” Olivette asked.
“I’m afraid I didn’t even look. I was trying not to fall on my face.”
“My cousin says she went to LA once and all California drivers are insane. I wish they would just keep their wild rides down there and leave us alone,” Gwennie said.
“And it’s not just their bad drivers, either. What about all the crime we are seeing these days along the southern Oregon coast. I just know we have the stupid California Prison Realignment to thank for most of it,” she continued.
“I read where some of the hardest hit communities refer to it as a catch-and-release program, like with fishing, when they let the small fish go…even though they are cruelly damaged by the nasty hooks and probably traumatized for life. Blood sports should be outlawed…But, as I was saying, in California now, some criminals are arrested, released and re-arrested for new crimes all in the same night. No jail time, let alone counseling and rehabilitation. What can they expect?” Judy added.
“That’s just crazy,” Elizabeth Gilbert agreed. “My husband was preaching a series on Responsible Love just last month. It is no kindness to enable a person to continue in their sins.”
“That’s right. We are not to be a stumbling block,” Olivette nodded emphatically.
“Well, their prisons are so over-crowded. What can they do?” Naidenne asked.
“Not send their problems up here, that’s what,” Gwennie replied.
Her comment serving as a benediction on that particular topic, the ladies moved on to the more gratifying practice of sharing the frustrations and joys of small town life in the parsonage and manse.
This club began shortly after Naidenne and Scott married. Eskaletha had come to the Bannoch Community Fellowship’s parsonage to welcome Naidenne into the ranks of local pastors’ wives and the two became instant friends.
Over the days following, they frequently met for lunch, when Naidenne would seek Eskaletha’s advice on her new role. Occasionally, one or another of the other pastors’ wives would join them.
Eventually, they decided to schedule regular gatherings and invite the wives of all the pastors in town.
When it came time to name their group, Eskaletha and Peggy Burt, wife of the Missionary Baptist pastor, suggested The First Ladies Club, after the title conferred upon the wife of the senior minister in their churches. Everyone loved the suggestion, so they had been The First Ladies Club, ever since.
The women represented a wide range of religious traditions and styles, and agreed to concentrate only on their commonalities.
Theological discussions were not encouraged; especially any debate of the prophetic books of Daniel and Revelation. Pre-millennial, post-millennial, and amillennial-isms, were strictly avoided, by common consent.
All the women shared a love of God and a desire to serve Him in their community.
Sometimes more than a dozen women were at the monthly meetings, however, busy schedules and responsibilities meant that at other times, only five or six could attend.
The club held regular fund-raisers for various community improvement projects, always being mindful not to compete with fund-raisers or other activities of the local churches.
In deference to her chewed-up knees, Naidenne accepted Eskaletha’s offer of a ride home when the meeting broke up.
Relaxing into the soft leather seats of her friend’s Lexus, she took a deep breath and allowed herself to think about her accident.
It was a very close call and could easily have resulted in serious injuries, or worse. Remembering the experience made her just a little light-headed.
Eskaletha was looking at her oddly, and her expression brought Naidenne back from her woolgathering.
“uh, did you say something, ‘Letha?”
“I asked are you going to the Women of Faith conference in Tillamook, next weekend,” Eskaletha repeated.
“Maybe. I haven’t asked Scott what we have planned for that night. Saturdays can be tricky, as you know. I think my sister-in-law, Rosamund, will want to go, though, if she isn’t busy.”
“Well, since Scott won’t be going, I can’t see what difference his plans make. It can’t interfere with his sermon prep just ‘cause you aren’t there.”
“No, but he may have accepted an invitation for us to call on a member of the flock. He sometimes does on a Saturday. If it’s a single woman, you know he can’t go alone. I’ll just have to check with him.”
“It’s a crying shame a pastor can’t call on a widow woman in her home these days without a chaperone, just so he won’t be accused of some impropriety,” Eskaletha said.
“I agree, but that’s the way it is, shame or not. It frightens me to think of what one false accusation can do to a man’s career…but, on the other hand, unfortunately, there actually are predators in the pastorate. I’ve encountered a wolf in sheep’s clothing myself.”
“I suppose it just takes one bad apple…still, it’s too bad,” Eskaletha commented.
“Thanks for the ride,” Naidenne said, as they pulled up in front of the drafty church-owned two-story Victorian house she shared with her husband and his sister.
“Call me tomorrow and let me know how you’re doing. I’m thinking, by then, you are going to hurt in places you never knew you had,” Eskaletha predicted with a grin, before driving off.
Naidenne entered her home and was immediately enveloped in the rich aroma of roast chicken with rosemary.
“That smells wonderful, Rosamund! What can I do to help?”
Her sister-in-law turned from the stove as Naidenne entered the kitchen.
“You can make a nice salad and help me decide what to fix for dessert, if you want…what in the world happened to your pants?”
“Oh, I fell down crossing the highway. A car jumped the light and sort of bumped into me.”
“Oh, Naidenne! You’re hurt! Are your knees cut up terribly under those bandages?”
“It’s not too bad. Could have been much worse, if I’d been any later for the meeting. The car clipped me from behind. I think I was just late enough not to get flattened.”
“Don’t you worry about helping with dinner. Go have a nice soak in the tub and then rest. Let me know if you need help with fresh bandages.”
“Thanks. I’d like to get out of these clothes. A bath sounds nice. But I’ll come back to help when I’ve changed.”